Making “mistakes” on the FAFSA
Sandy Jimenez has been a College Access Counselor at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center since 2000. In 2006, she helped design the first iteration of the Options Institute’s Foundation Course for College Access and Success Counselors. She has worked individually with over 500 students and trained thousands of professionals. Most recently, Sandy has joined NYC College Line as a Senior Adviser, where you can reach her through the Ask an Adviser feature.
Bonding with other counselors
A few weeks ago, one of our training participants wanted to chat during lunch. She apologized for drifting off while I trained about financial aid counseling. Obviously, she didn't find me boring but she was so tired! She had taken on a second job in addition to her school counselor job; she now worked through the night. She explained that she put two daughters through college. First, she used her retirement money to put her oldest daughter through college and, when her second daughter attended, she took out a parent loan.
A week later, I told this story to a room full of counselors who nodded knowingly. Of the elders who had graduated at least one child from college, many had taken out large loans and scoffed at the idea that middle to high income families could even get financial aid. Those of us with young families nervously laughed about what college costs would look like in 10 to 15 years. It was a moment of bonding—a moment of joint anxiety and fear.
The cost of college
It's no secret that college is extremely expensive. As college advisers we have special insight into how difficult affording college can be for all families. For our low income students, college can seem expensive. College can feel as heavy a burden to the rest of our families too. It can also feel like a burden to us as advisers when we’re supporting our own children.
That day, I tried to create a thoughtful moment. Based on our experiences and fears, we could definitely understand the urge a lot of families have to game the system in order to better afford college. When students present us with what seems like a dishonest plan to get more money from colleges, it can become an ethical quandary. Nevertheless, there’s no room for judgment. What I hope my participants took away is that, whatever we choose to do when presented with this predicament, empathy trumps judgment in counseling and in communication in general.
It’s not a lie if you believe it
When our families want to make the system work for them, they inevitably come to a trusted college adviser for advice. Students from households with two parents often wonder if there’s any way they can list just mom or just dad. Other students hope to represent their special family on the FAFSA. Unfortunately, there’s no room on the FAFSA for the auntie that raised you. We’d like to help the families we work with to get more money but, if it means helping them misrepresent themselves, we might draw the line.
What we can do is inform. Providing information can make all the difference—sometimes the difference between filing and not filing the FAFSA and other times the difference between filing correctly and getting in big trouble. For many of the families we work with, this school year is full of firsts: the first time they visit a college, the first time a student applies, they first time they complete the FAFSA, etc. We cannot assume that they will have all of the information they need. As a first step, always offer information. Conversation about the steps that will be required in order to apply for financial aid as well as clarification about what the forms are asking are important.
This year, one of my early decision applicants came to me for help with the Profile. As we reviewed it, I noted that she’d listed a household of six. She explained that it included her parents, herself, her aunt, and her grandparents. I remembered from a previous conversation that her grandparents lived in South America. After talking a bit more, it was obvious to me that her grandparents weren’t really part of her household, at least not in the world of financial aid. I explained who to count in a household and asked her to talk it over with her mom. Next time I saw her, they had removed the grandparents from her household. Not all students end up doing what we wish they’d do, but the informing part is crucial. Once you give information the decision part is up to the family.
Playing the game
Don’t get me wrong. There's nothing untoward about being thoughtful about your finances, in anticipation of the financial aid application process. A participant in one of our community workshops once quipped that it was no coincidence that last year several of her friends’ kids had graduated college and that she had attended four weddings. Since stepparents are listed on financial aid forms, her friends had been waiting to marry longtime boyfriends until their kids no longer had to apply for financial aid. Another example: a lot of parents choose 529 plans over custodial accounts, since 529 plans count as parent assets and, therefore, in an over-simplified way count less towards the EFC.
Boys and girls, planning is good. Lying is bad. Once folks have access to the right information, choosing to misrepresent their household, income or assets puts them on a slippery slope. In my experience, people often get away with these misrepresentations. With financial aid counselors being called upon to be a part detective and part tax vigilante (No judgment—I know it’s their job!), misrepresentations can be hard to keep up. I haven’t heard of anyone being hauled off to prison for lying on a financial aid form but folks do get caught. When they do, they can be banned from receiving any more aid and will most likely be asked to repay the aid they received.
The Top 5 “mistakes” people make
There are common misrepresentations families make on the FAFSA, knowingly or unknowingly. Below, we list the top 5. Use this list to inform your families.
1. Choosing to report only one parent
Students must list the parents they live with. If they live with both biological or adoptive (bio/ado) mom and dad, they should list both on the FAFSA. If they only live with one, list only one. If they live with one and that one is remarried, they list both the bio/ado parent and the stepparent. Other forms may even require non-custodial parent information.
2. Non-custodial parent claims student on taxes
FAFSA looks to tax forms for income information. The FAFSA’s been around for years, so they are privy to the misrepresentations people make on tax forms. This means that they don’t defer to taxes for information about household size. If a student lives with his mom and his dad claims him on the taxes, the student will still list his mom’s information on financial aid forms as his custodial parent.
3. Parents who refuse to share information
Unless students meet some very specific criteria (i.e. being married, being over 24, supporting dependents, being in a legal guardianship, etc.) they must list parental information. Parental refusal to share information is not a legit reason to file as an independent student. If it was, I might just refuse to share my information. In this case, the student and the counselor have to keep trying. Figure out what the hang up is. Is it fear of loans? Is it a cultural thing? Then find a solution. Explain what the forms are for and how information will be used. If necessary, bring other parents in for peer to peer conversations.
4. Parents filing as head of household
Last year we saw an increase in the level of analysis financial aid forms were subject to. There was a lot of verification of tax filing status versus marital status. A mismatch often produces a stall in the process, as colleges wait for families to amend their tax returns. The fact is married parents can only file taxes using the status of “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately.” Informing families early is imperative.
5. Other relatives listed as parents.
The truth is that many households aren’t traditional. Students grow up with grandmas or uncles who step up as unofficial moms and dads. Unless these amazing people actually adopt the student, the relationship remains a loving but, nonetheless, unofficial one. When it comes time to file for financial aid, they cannot be listed as parents. Students that still have contact with bio/ado parents will have to list those on their forms. If they’ve lost contact due to abandonment, abuse, or some other situation, the student may have to file for a dependency override. (More here: http://nyccollegeline.org/resources/dependency-override-guidelines)
Here’s the plan. Set up a judgment free zone, where students can come with questions. Provide unbiased information about the process and what the forms ask. Last, come up with a policy. Once you’ve lent an ear and provided information, the choice of what to do is up to your student. Whether you help or not is up to you. If a student is taking a path that doesn’t match your ethics or puts your professional reputation at risk, you can say no. I’ve definitely exercised this option. I’ve delivered many a non-judgmental message to the tune of “Juana if you choose to <insert misrepresentation here>, I won’t be able to support you. I can help with the other parts of your application process but cannot help you fill out the FAFSA.”
How would you support a student like this?