College profiling

I appreciate Jennifer jumping in to write my blog last week. As she said, filling out the financial forms that are part of the college application process drained all my creative energy; it was a challenge to see how poor I could make us look and still tell the truth.

If you have had a child apply to college in the past 10 years, then you know the process starts with the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form is about 150 questions asking about income, assets, and if you have any cash stuffed under the mattress. Then after you file your tax return, you log back on and all the numbers off your 1040 are plugged into the FAFSA so that colleges can make sure no one has “accidentally” left off a digit or two about how much untaxed income they have.

The numbers on the FAFSA are plugged into a formula that spits out the Expected Family Contribution; that’s the amount the Department of Education thinks parents can contribute to their child’s education. Our EFC for one year of college for Jennifer is $13,000; where they think we can come up with that amount of money without selling a kidney, is a mystery to me.

If the FAFSA is the bones of a family’s financial situation, it’s the CSS Profile that really puts the meat on them. This form, short for College Scholarship Service Profile, is required by four of the eight colleges that Jennifer is applying to. The amount of detail that this form wants to know about our financial status makes the FAFSA look like it could be filled out with a crayon…but get out the ultra fine point mechanical pencil for filling out the CSS Profile. The worksheet for it, which they recommend printing out before entering the answers online, was 20 pages.

The amusing part is that the questions are written as if it is the student who is filling out the form and not the parent. Here’s a sample of one of questions on the CSS Profile:

“Estimate the total amount of your parents’ other taxable income such as alimony received, capital gains (or losses), pensions, annuities, etc. using their 2013 financial documents and 2012 IRS Form 1040, lines 10, 11, 13, 14, 15b, 16b, 19, 20b and 21. To enter a loss, use a minus (-) sign.”

Hey no problem! Every 17 year-old knows how to estimate capital gains and losses.

After completing more than a dozen sections probing into every nook and cranny of ours and Jennifer’s income, expenses and assets including the year, make and model of our cars and whether Jennifer owns any precious and strategic metals – I guess the $1.53 in her piggy bank doesn’t count – I got to the “Explanations/Special Circumstances” section.

In this section, I had 2000 characters in which to add some prose – in a sense flesh out – our financial situation and modest lifestyle. Since everyone fills out this section with the hope that they look needy and that the colleges will pony up money for their child, I can only imagine how much whining parents do to look really desperate.

Tempting as it was, I stopped short of including in my description that (poor us) we don’t have a flat screen TV; that probably wouldn’t help Jennifer get more money.

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