It’s October, and that means college-bound families can start applying for financial aid for the 2018-19 school year. the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened Oct. 1.
Technically, families have until next summer — June 30, 2018 — to submit their FAFSA for 2018-19. But experts recommend filing as soon as possible in order to maximize the amount of aid students can receive. That’s because state, federal and school funding for various types of financial aid is often limited, and can run out.
Don’t leave money on the table. A recent study by social sciences researcher, Michael S. Kofoed at the United States West Point Military Academy found that each year, students who do not file miss out on as much as $9,741.05 in federal grant and student loan money, aggregating to some $24 billion annually.
“To get the most aid, you’re going to want to make sure you are doing it early,” says Jasmine Hicks, national field director with Young Invincibles, a nonprofit advocacy group for young adults. Hicks has trained college-bound families on what they need to successfully fill out and submit the FAFSA.
Here are a few tips to help you file your FAFSA for the maximum amount of aid available to you.
1) Your state and college FAFSA deadlines might be even earlier than the federal cutoff.
Adding to your list of dates to remember, states and schools have their own FAFSA filing deadlines for grants and scholarships.
For example, for Delaware students to be eligible for state scholarships and grants for 2018-19, they must file their FAFSA by April 15, 2018. But the submission deadline for students who wish to be considered for Delaware State University scholarships and grants is even earlier, on March 15, 2018.
You can check here to see your state’s filing deadline. Be sure to enter your state of legal residence and the school year for which you’re applying for aid to view the cutoff date for your state. Be sure to double-check the deadline, as it could be earlier than the federal filing deadline and some states have different deadlines for different programs.
For example, Alaska’s Education Grant asks applicants to file the financial aid application as early as possible after the Oct 1 open date, since awards are made until the fund is depleted.
But the “official” FAFSA submission deadline for the scholarship is the same as the federal one.
Hicks says families should check a school’s website to check and see if there is a different filing deadline date than June 30, 2018. Some schools may require students to file earlier than June 30 to be considered for institutional scholarships and grants.
2) The FAFSA is the key to unlocking more than just need-based aid.
If you don’t file the FAFSA, you might also remove yourself from the pool of eligible recipients for state and institutional aid, as well — even if they aren’t income-based. Many aid offerings require a FAFSA.
Here’s a list of all the federal aid for which you need to complete a FAFSA to be eligible:
- Federal direct student loan
- Federal work-study program
- Federal PLUS loan (for parents)
- Federal PELL grant
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant
And that’s just federal aid. As we mentioned before, states and schools may use information from your FAFSA to determine if they will award you merit-based grants and scholarships. And they may have their own submission deadlines.
3) Financial aid money may run out.
Students may think they have tons of time to submit their application, but, if you wait to file, you may miss out on “free money” due to limited resources. Let’s put it another way: If the funds run out before you submit your FAFSA form, you could receive less money compared with what you would have gotten had you filed earlier — or you might get nothing at all.
If you know you will need scholarship or grant money to fund your education, you should make filing the FAFSA early your first priority. “There’s really no reason to wait,” says Hicks.
Fortunately, it’s become easier for families to tackle the FAFSA. The Department of Education moved the application’s from January to October, beginning with the 2017 graduating high school class. Prior to the rule change, families could not submit their FAFSA until January for students attending college in the fall. The rule change allows families to submit the FAFSA form earlier, and use older tax information to fill out the form so they are able to meet early deadlines for financial aid.
Students can now use family tax information dating back as far as two years, so applicants no longer have to wait to file until their parents or guardians file their taxes for the current tax year.
On top of that, FAFSA forms now include a new IRS data retrieval tool, which will automatically pull in your parent’s tax information from two years ago, so you don’t have to shuffle through a stack of papers looking for letters and numbers corresponding to the information you need to input.
Where to get help to finish up your FAFSA
The tax information may be easy to pull in electronically, but the FAFSA has more than 100 questions and isn’t the easiest form to decipher overall.
“Students often think of the FAFSA as a huge and daunting task,” says Hicks. “They don’t feel like they are able to do it or equipped to do it.”
Get help if you aren’t confident in filling out all the information on your own, so you don’t put off filing the FAFSA any longer. There may also be follow-up requests, like income verification, that, if overlooked or left incomplete, could delay your receiving all or part of your financial aid award.
Up to 40 percent of college-bound students who apply and are accepted to college fall prey to a phenomenon called ‘summer melt.’ They never make to campus their freshman year because of mistakes that trip them up in the process. Many of the mistakes have to do with the financial aid process and can be avoided if you get help early on.
Your high school guidance or college counselor may be able to assist you with your application.
If you feel you need more assistance than your counselor can provide, look to organizations or access programs that focus on helping students complete the forms required to give financial aid, like the College Goal Sunday Program hosted by the National College Action Network, or Reach4Success.