Guest Blog Post: Updates to the FAFSA

This post is by Joe Messinger,  a CFP® in Dublin, Ohio.  His website is: .  

What did Washington do this time?  New FAFSA rules, what it means to you, & our 3 proactive points

When it rains, it pours! This week the Obama administration announced not only a new College Scorecard website but also revisions to FAFSA—both with the aim of making college more accessible to everyone. What is important for YOU to know to be an informed consumer of higher education?

First the College Scorecard…

The Department of Education’s new College Scorecard website should provide families with increased transparency: true costs for each college, college’s success/graduation rate, and post-graduation salary. You can search by program, location, size, and specific name as well as other categories. Here’s an example from Ohio State’s Main Campus:


Some points to be aware of:

  • All three categories displayed are the numbers for financial aid students. These numbers will be different for a family who does NOT qualify for need-based aid.
  • The “graduation rate” is after 6 years—not 4.
  • The “salary after attending” is 10 years after graduation.

Click on the “view more details” link to find helpful information including:

  • Costs for families in all salary ranges
  • Typical total student loan debt after graduation
  • Diversity and number of students
  • ACT/SAT test scores ranges
  • Most popular programs

The website is a good starting point for general data about your favorite colleges but proceed with caution.  They are reporting average figures to give you a ball park cost of attendance, salary, etc. from those students who were awarded federal aid.  Your scholastic achievement, family finances, and choice of major will dramatically impact what your “net cost” will be to attend each institution as well as your future earning potential.  Dig deeper into each school you are interested in by going to the school’s Net Cost Estimator and research your future career earning potential on sites like and organizations like the National Association of Colleges & Employers ( for a complete picture.

Now the FAFSA…

The changes to the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) are not as easy to understand. Currently seniors are applying to college in the fall and applying for the FAFSA starting in January AFTER they have already submitted college applications. The biggest change starting in October 2016 is students can file the FAFSA starting October 1st using the tax returns from the previous year.  (Note this change does not affect the current seniors, the 2016 high school graduating class. This change impacts the high school graduating class of 2017 and anyone applying for financial aid for the 2017-18 school year and beyond.)

The changes will look like this…

Seniors NOW 2015/2016 Seniors 2016/2017
College Applications Fall 2015 Fall 2016
FAFSA Available January 2016 October 2016
Tax Year Figures Used 2015 (prior year) 2015 (prior, prior year)


Making this change is meant to make it easier for families. Theoretically by moving up the date, you can have a clearer financial picture when selecting colleges to apply to. Also when families complete the FAFSA now they commonly have to use estimated tax numbers and then revise the FAFSA with actual numbers afterwards. The 2016 plan will eliminate the need to revise your numbers.  You will use the actual returns you have already submitted for the prior year.

At Capstone, we are all about proactive planning to create an ideal outcome for you and your students! Don’t wait until fall of your student’s senior year.  It will be too late!

Our 3 proactive points:

  1. Financial aid and tax aid planning for college need to begin freshmen year of high school. The most important planning year will now be the spring of your sophomore year and the fall of your junior year. This period will be the tax year used on the FAFSA as your “base year”.  Why is that year so important?  Your financial aid filing for your college freshmen year is what we call your “base year”.  Your base year is critical as colleges frequently award the most aid to incoming freshmen, and often the aid is in 4-year renewable scholarships.  You still need to fill out the FAFSA each year, but you want to look as poor as possible in your freshmen year, as it forms the basis of your financial aid package for all four years.
  2. Use an EFC estimator and the Net Cost Calculator on each college’s website in your high school junior year at the latest so parents and students can have a conversation about realistically affordable colleges.
  3. Create a comprehensive 4-year college funding strategy incorporating college selection, financial aid, asset and income tax strategies, and a plan to minimize your student’s debt.

Future changes meant to simplify the questions asked by the FAFSA and streamline the process are constantly under discussion.  In the meantime take matters into your own hands and become an informed consumer of a college education.

Joe Messinger, CFP®


Choosing a college major: The case against online assessments and the trouble with passion

We are pleased to feature this Guest Blog Post from Getting at the Core.

As parents of today’s college-bound kids, we can feel….behind.  We have so much to do.  SAT/ACT, summer experiences, jobs, extra-curriculars, homework, tests, and more.  Every step moves your child closer to the choices ahead: career, major, and college. Maybe your child has a clear picture of their dream college.  Usually, the more challenging task for our students is choosing a major/career. How will they decide? What might they be good at or enjoy doing in the future?

If you Google “how to choose a college major,” you’ll get some dangerous advice. US News suggests waiting until college to try out classes and see what your student likes. Why is this risky? With the cost of college today, most families cannot afford to pay for a 5th or 6th year for the students who change their majors repeatedly.  Only between 19 to 36% graduate in 4 years! In addition, how can you select a college excelling in the program your student will eventually choose? When your student has a strong sense of their ideal major, the choice of college becomes much easier.

Photo: “Four Year Myth”, Complete College America, 2014

In the US News article, a dean of student affairs says “name … one 18 year-old that can say, ‘For the rest of my life, I want to do this.'” No one has the magic wand to give your child this answer.  However, At The Core knows that with guidance, students can discover their interests, preferences, values, and enjoyment level—the knowledge needed to make the best choice in career, major, and college.

So don’t online assessments help with this? Your student has probably been exposed to these assessments as a tool to identify an ideal career. We’ve heard story after story of frustrating, confusing, or just plain humorous results. Online assessments have pitfalls—they can’t see the whole picture (no face-to-face contact), they force an answer from a limited set of choices and they are limited by the quality of the software behind them.  Students can answer “aspirationally,” which isn’t helpful for such tools, and often, no one helps them interpret the results.  Frustrating, for sure!

Finally, why on earth would we have trouble with passion?! Back to that web search, you can find advice to “follow your passion.” Yes, having a passion leading you to a fulfilling career is wonderful. But many students may never find one and feel they have failed.  Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You that most passionate professionals did not start out passionate about their career field.  Interesting to ponder, isn’t it?

What can we do to help our students? See if At The Core’s Guided Self Assessment is right for you. Students who complete the process discuss their experiences with a trusted facilitator, yielding key foundational insights about their strongest personal traits.  We analyze the student’s input and create a custom report filled with suggestions, next steps, and careers to explore.  When the next decisions arise, they will evaluate the options with this new information at the top of their mind, guiding them to work they love, a perfect fit college, and situations playing to their strengths.  Families tell us it’s an incredible gift to give their child.

No matter how they do it, we highly recommend your child invests the time in self assessment.  If you would like to learn more about At The Core’s Guided Self Assessment program, call us at 614-404-0646 or visit

Early Decision is Worth Considering

I recently had a meeting with a friend of mine who works in college admissions counseling. He shared that it has never been more important to consider doing Early Admission to universities. I asked him to estimate just how significant a difference it might make, and he said that a student who has a 32 ACT, 4.0 GPA and good extracurricular activities applying to a school like Northwestern would have about a 50% chance of admission with Early Decision, but only a 10-20% chance of admission with regular decision.
Why do colleges like Early Decision? Here are two ideas:

1. It enables them to have students apply who do not need financial assistance. A student who would need to weigh competing financial aid offers from universities would not be able to limit herself to Early Decision.

2. It allows them to reject far more students in the regular application pool. Since they will have about half of their classes set early, colleges will be able to be more selective in the regular pool because they will not need to worry about filling up their class spots. More selectivity=higher rankings and more prestige.

The downside, of course, of early decision is that you will be committing to attending that school should you be accepted. That means even if the financial aid they offer you isn’t enough, or will put you greatly in debt you’re legally obligated to attend. You must pull your applications from other schools.

What does this mean for you? If you are considering a top-tier school, consider before applying early. Think very carefully,  about which college to which you will apply. You need to consider how risky you are comfortable being. If you apply to a school like Harvard or Yale early and get rejected, then you may not have as solid a chance at schools like University of Chicago, Duke or Northwestern in the regular decision pool. It may be in your interest to apply early to the school where you have the most realistic chance of being admitted. Quite a bit to consider. I look forward to your comments and questions.