October marks the opening of the enrollment period for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as FAFSA. If you or your children are planning to attend college or graduate school in the 2023-24 school year, experts advise completing the form as soon as possible, even if you don't know where you plan to go to school yet.
Enrollment for FAFSA for 2023-24 remains open until June 30, 2024, but applying as early as you can will confer a number of advantages toward receiving financial aid. Read on to learn all the reasons why it's a good idea to file your FAFSA form as early as possible.
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What is FAFSA?
FAFSA is the government form that students, their families, their school counselors or paid preparers complete to determine eligibility for financial assistance for college or graduate school. There are no income restrictions for FAFSA -- everyone can apply.
Federal money from FAFSA comes in the form of direct aid, grants, loans and work-study funds. States and colleges also use the information from FAFSA to make decisions about their own grants and scholarships.
To complete the FAFSA form, you'll need to create an account on the Federal Student Aid site. If you're a dependent student, a parent or guardian must create an account too. Record your account credentials somewhere safe -- including your login information and a "save key" -- you'll need them to apply for financial aid every year.
The FAFSA form itself has multiple sections -- including student information, financial information and parent/guardian information. The Education Department says that most people complete the form in less than an hour (though CNET Managing Editor Cliff Colby, who's filled out forms for two college students, scoffs at that claim).
Completing FAFSA online is the easiest way to get it done, but you can also download a PDF form to print, complete and mail. It's worth noting that the online form lets you list 10 schools, while the PDF only allows four. The FSA released its 2023-24 PDF form today as well.
Who should apply for FAFSA?
Everyone planning to attend college or graduate school next year should apply for financial aid via FAFSA. There are no income limits for qualifying for federal student aid, and it costs nothing to apply.
The National College Attainment Network estimates that $3.75 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed in the 2020-21 school year because eligible students didn't apply for FAFSA.
Even if you believe that your family's income or wealth will disqualify you for financial aid, you should still submit the FAFSA application. Some colleges and universities will use the data from FAFSA to award their own scholarships. You'll also need to file FAFSA to qualify for federal student loans, if you're not eligible for other aid.
More than 200 schools -- many private but not all -- also require students requesting financial aid to complete the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile. Each school has its own deadline for filing the CSS Profile, but it opens on the same date as FAFSA -- Oct. 1.
Why should I complete the FAFSA form early?
The biggest reason to file FAFSA early is that there is a limited amount of federal student aid, and it can sometimes be distributed on a "first come, first serve" basis.
Money set aside for grants, work-study funds and merit scholarships can run out. If you wait until the end of the enrollment period, you could miss out on available funds that you could have qualified for earlier.
The Federal Student Aid office will process your FAFSA application in about three to five days. Paper applications take seven to 10 days. Information from FAFSA then will be shared with your selected schools, and you will learn your school's financial aid award decision shortly after receiving your acceptance letter.
Soon after processing your FAFSA form, the FSA will send you a Student Aid Report, which includes your eligibility for Pell Grants and, most important, your Expected Family Contribution. The info on your Student Aid Report, particularly your EFC, is essential in helping you plan how to pay for higher education. The sooner you get it, the better.
Filing FAFSA early can also make comparing colleges easier. Once your FAFSA form is processed, your information will be shared with all of the colleges and universities listed on your form.
Getting your application in early means that the colleges making an acceptance offer are able to provide financial aid information earlier, letting you better compare schools if you receive multiple offers.
Even if you're not sure where you want to go to college, you should file FAFSA early. You can list 10 colleges when you initially apply, but you can later change your application to include different schools.
You'll have more time to appeal financial aid awards
Offers of financial aid from schools are just offers. You can accept all of the aid or part of the aid, or ask the school for more money. Schools generally provide their best offers to start, but if your family's financial situation has changed -- such as with a death or loss of a job -- it's worth amending your FAFSA form and appealing a school's decision.
You might also appeal a financial aid award if one school has offered you much more aid than another. Every school has its own process for appealing financial aid awards. Email the school's financial aid office to learn the details of its appeals process.
States have their own deadlines
Many state deadlines for financial aid applications are earlier than the federal deadline. The FSA website has a complete list of state deadlines for 2023-24, as well as 2022-23 (which ends federally June 30, 2023).
The earliest state deadline listed for 2023-24 on the FSA website is Texas, at Jan. 13, 2023, for "priority consideration." Other states have deadlines in February and March of 2023. Rather than worrying about your own state deadline, get your FAFSA done early.
Thirteen other states -- Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Vermont and Washington -- suggest applying as soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2022, in order to claim limited funds.
Some financial aid does not run out
It's important to note that Pell Grant funds do not run out. Everyone who qualifies for a federal Pell Grant will get the full amount they are eligible for, regardless of when they apply.
The same goes for student loans. If you want to take out federal student loans (for which many borrowers are expecting to receive), you'll need to complete the FAFSA form, but your eligibility for loans won't be affected by when you apply.
Collect the info you need for FAFSA ahead of time
FAFSA requires a good amount of personal and financial information, so it's best to get all your relevant documents together before you start filling out the form. Here's what you'll need:
- Your Social Security number (or Alien Registration number if you're not a US citizen)
- Your federal income tax return
- Your W-2 form and all records of income earned
- All bank statements and investment statements
- Any records of untaxed income
- Federal Student Aid ID (which you get when you create your online account)
If you are a dependent student, you'll need to get all of that information for your parents or guardians as well.
You may be able to import your federal income tax information into FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. You can access the tool by clicking "Link to IRS" in the online FAFSA application.
Even if you don't apply for FAFSA early, apply by the deadline
Now would be a good time to mention that FAFSA enrollment for the current school year, 2022-23, is open until June 30, 2023. If you're in college or graduate school this year, and you haven't filed your FAFSA form, do it now.
The same advice goes for the next school year -- 2023-24. You've got 21 months to get your FAFSA form completed. If you don't do it early, make sure you get it done before June 30, 2024.
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