04/14/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2013

FAFSA Nation: College Parents Commence Anxiety-Producing Spring Tradition

As annual duties go, completing the FAFSA in spring is as pleasing as having a mammogram while filling out your 1040. Warming winds lure young and old to neighborhood cafes and parks as middle-aged parents of college kids collectively growl at computers.

The clunky acronym stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is an electronic storefront for the U.S. Department of Education, a clearinghouse form used to determine a student's financial situation and a family's expected contribution to his college expenses. Easier stated: in goes your family's financial numbers; out comes another number. That number is the one the federal government and your child's college refer to when determining loan and grant eligibility.

I'm anxious by the time I quit procrastinating, sit down and face the form. I can recall the smell of ditto paper, and now I am communicating personal and weighty information in a way that leaves no tangible trace. Who am I even talking to when I type in my numbers? I feel untethered. I swear. At the one-hour point a friend, who recently completed two FAFSAs, calls and assures me that if I am swearing while completing the form, I am doing it right. Her words cheer me; I am not alone. But cannot we, as a nation, find an easier way to test the psychological strength of our parent-citizens?

The crux of the form, the part responsible for stomach knots across America, is reporting last year's parental income. Traditionally, this meant hauling out paper tax returns and fretting that a personal misunderstanding of a question would misrepresent one's family as having deep pockets.

But for the first time, FAFSA this year promised us parents an easy and accurate alternative; we could leave the FAFSA website, enter the IRS website, then electronically pour personal information from one large government agency into another. What could possibly go wrong with that?

I found out after two hours, a point at which I had donated exhaustively to the collective growl, called the financial aid department at my son's college, spoke with my tax guy, then broke down and dialed the FAFSA helpline. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I cannot link to the IRS data.

FAFSA representative: There can be two reasons. What does the screen say?

Me: It says the problem is either A or B, neither of which is true.

FAFSA representative: Then you'll just have to enter the information manually.

Can't I just submit a photocopy of my tax return and a photo of my garage door (manual, rotting) to give you my financial picture?

In the end, FAFSA works. I think so... I hope so... Oh, God, now I have that feeling in my stomach again. This much is true: FAFSA is not free to those of us who wrangle with it. The price is one afternoon of Feeling Anxious, Frought and Seriously Apoplectic.

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