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A brand new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) made its debut on October 1st, featuring 60% fewer questions and a host of other changes that aim to increase the likelihood that you can qualify for financial aid.
As you prepare to complete this year's application, here are some tips to maximize your FAFSA eligibility for financial aid.
• File the FAFSA early. More than a dozen states award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. Students who file the FAFSA in October tend to get more than twice as much grant aid on average as students who file the FAFSA later. Even better, by completing the FAFSA early you can time your financial requests to colleges with their varied due dates.
• Minimize income in the base year. 2021 is the base tax year when filling out the FAFSA for the 2023-2024 school year. If you've already filed your 2021 tax return, consider filing an amended Form 1040 if there were deductions you may have overlooked that could reduce your income. Otherwise, file this knowledge away to best position your income for future years.
• Reduce the amount of reportable assets. While assets aren't weighted as heavily as income on the FAFSA, they could still affect overall financial aid eligibility. To decrease the amount of reportable assets, consider using cash in your bank accounts to pay down unsecured debt such as credit cards and auto loans, or maximizing retirement plan contributions. Keep in mind that certain assets aren't considered when determining financial aid eligibility. This includes the home you live in, the value of life insurance, and most retirement plans.
• Use 529 plans wisely. 529 plan owners will impact how the funds are reported on the FAFSA. If the account owner is a grandparent or relative, the funds are not counted on the FAFSA until the money is used. So timing the use of these funds is important. And remember if the account owner is a parent or the student, the balance of 529 plans is considered an asset of the parent on the FAFSA.
• Spend a student's money first. If a student does have cash saved or other assets, consider withdrawing money from student assets first before touching parent assets, since student assets are assessed at a higher rate than parent assets.
• Plan for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). If your family is eligible for the AOTC, try spending up to $4,000 in tuition and textbook expenses using cash. The AOTC's maximum tax credit of $4,000 will be worth more dollar-for-dollar rather than using a $4,000 tax-free distribution from a 529 plan.