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Expert offers FAFSA advice

The following article is from Suffolk News Herald

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available online at fafsa.ed.gov starting this Sunday.

It will mark the second year the FAFSA is available in the fall as opposed to its former Jan. 1 start date. Applicants are also able to use their 2016 tax information to apply during the 2017-2018 academic year.

According to the Educational Credit Management Corporation, students were eager for the earlier start date. During the first week of October 2016, 196,736 students completed the form, an increase of more than 60,000 students compared to the first week of January 2015.

As of June 30, the end of the 2016-2017 FAFSA cycle, more than 2.1 million applications were completed, a 9-percent increase compared to the 2015 to 2016 cycle, according to ECMC.

This means that students need to apply as soon as possible, according to Paula Craw, ECMC vice president of success and outreach. Crew shared the following advice for applicants navigating the FAFSA this year.

Get started early.
Students don't have to wait until Oct. 1 to start working on their applications. They can go online to fafsa.ed.gov as soon as possible to start filling out account information, and go to schev.edu for handy lists of items to complete. "If students need help, they can turn to their high schools," Craw said. "Resources and advisors at Suffolk schools are there for the sole purpose of helping students and their families navigate the college planning process."

Read the fine print.
Be careful when looking over attractive scholarships. According to Craw, some scholarship awards are "frontloaded" with generous freshmen-year packages that don't necessarily continue past that first year. "We get situations where they have all this free money in the first year, but come second year, some of those scholarships may not be renewable," she said. "It's good practice to read that fine print and understand what kind of money it is going in."

You want grants, not loans.
FAFSA determines how much federal aid an applicant qualifies for and is used by colleges to determine that student's award package. Alongside the grants, scholarships and fellowships, that package may include loans, which will need to be repaid with interest. "Don't make assumptions about the award letter," Craw said. "It could very well be the case that some of the money needs to be repaid. Ask lots of questions. Try to maximize the free money you're eligible for, and then go to student loans second."

Consider your financial means.
Look for schools that are within your financial means to save money on application fees. ECMC resources like collegeabacus.org and pell.collegeabacus.org evaluate school costs based on the user's financial information. "It sort of levels the playing field for students, so they can compare a number of different schools," Craw said.

Don't wait
Different schools may be subject to different admission deadlines, and some financial aid is on a first-come, first-served basis, Craw said. "The early bird might get a better, bigger aid package than students or families that wait," she said.

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