No matter what your situation, college tuition is an enormous expense that can strain even the biggest of budgets. According to the National Center for Education, the average annual cost of tuition, room and board ranged from $16,188 at public institutions to a whopping $41,970 at private colleges in the 2014-2015 academic year.
When it comes to divorce, it may be inconceivable how you can manage to pay those huge fees in a newly single-income household. Thankfully, there are numerous grant, scholarship and loan programs that can help, and they all start with a single document – the FAFSA.
What is the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a document that is completed using your tax information and submitted to the US Department of Education. This application is used to determine your earning status, and also allows the department to assess how much your family can afford to contribute to the cost of your child’s education.
Who should file the FAFSA?
Regardless of who claims the child as a dependent on their taxes, the custodial parent is the one who should complete and submit the FAFSA for their child. If there is no legal custodial agreement, the parent with whom the child stayed the most number of days should fulfill this task. And in cases where custody was evenly split, the parent who spent the most money on care for the child should file the FAFSA.
Why does it matter? As mentioned earlier, information about the student’s family income and assets go into a formula that yields the Expected Family Contribution – the amount a family is expected to contribute to the cost of the student’s education. And this matters most when the custodial parent earns less – sometimes significantly less – than the non-custodial parent.
The lower income of the custodial parent means that the student will likely qualify for a greater amount of aid to help pay for their education; and ensures that their parent isn’t expected to pay for an unreasonable amount of their educational expenses relative to their income. It is important to note that if the custodial parent remarries, their new household income must be listed on the FAFSA, which may reduce their student’s qualification for financial aid.
What about non-federal financial aid?
In addition to the FAFSA, many private schools use the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSSP) to determine a student’s eligibility for non-federal aid. When it comes to the CSSP, many (but not all) schools require financial information from the non-custodial parent in addition to the custodial parent before determining the family’s expected contribution. Like the FAFSA, some of these schools take into consideration a remarried parent’s new household income, so it’s important to note that this profile should be completed to the specifications of your student’s chosen school(s).
The best resource for additional information on federal and non-federal student aid is the financial aid department at the school your student has selected. They can provide you with detailed information about the specific requirements of that school, which will ensure that you complete all of the necessary forms accurately the first time.