3 Ways Applying for Financial Aid Will Be Easier in 2011

Tax forms will start synching with FAFSAs in February.

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Financial aid applicants worrying about how much money they'll get in college scholarships or grants in 2011 can rejoice in at least one happy development: applying for aid will be easier than ever. 

The result of the simpler applications may disappoint many students, however, since the continuing economic problems have forced many state legislatures to cut back on their state scholarship programs. And in early 2011, Congress is expected to debate whether to cut the size of Pell Grants for the 2011-12 academic year.  

But at least it will take less time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the form that qualifies students for federal student loans and grants, as well as most other scholarships and aid. Three factors are making the FAFSA less ulcer-inducing: 

1. More free web tools: Although there's plenty of dreck on the web, there is a growing library of legitimate online tutorials and web videos that help students and parents get started on the FAFSA and maximize their chances for aid. We've compiled a list of some of the more accurate and watchable FAFSA web resources.

2. Fewer questions: The Department of Education has eliminated some of the most confusing questions on the notorious form. And starting Jan. 31, the Education Department says it will take no more than two weeks to import applicants' Internal Revenue Service information into their FAFSAs. So an applicant who files a 1040s on Feb. 1, say, and waits until Feb. 14 to start the FAFSA, should find many of the lines automatically filled in with tax information, saving a lot of time and work.  

[Learn more about paying for college.]

3. Free help: College Goal Sunday and other state and charity programs are once again sending thousands of volunteers out to high schools, libraries, colleges, and other community centers to help students and parents fill out FAFSAs in January, February, and March. Although economic troubles have caused some states to scale back on the number of locations, other states, such as Washington and Maryland, are expanding the number of events and volunteers. And at least one state, Nebraska, offers free one-on-one college and financial aid counseling year-round. 

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