The FAFSA, Your Ticket to Help Pay for College, Just Opened

NerdWallet
Even if you’re unsure you'd qualify for aid, it’s important to still fill out the FAFSA.

Even if you’re unsure you’d qualify for aid, it’s important to still fill out the FAFSA. Getty Images

October marks the open date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA — and college-bound students should submit the application as soon as possible.

Completing the FAFSA allows you to be considered for federal, state and school-based aid. In addition, submitting it soon after the Oct. 1 open date will increase your chances of receiving scholarships and grants that schools include in aid packages.

For the 2020-21 academic year, 56% of families used scholarships to help pay for college, according to Sallie Mae’s 2021 How America Pays for College study.

Even if you’re unsure you’d qualify for free aid, it’s still important to fill out the FAFSA. Most people are eligible for federal student loans. However, what varies is need-based aid, which is calculated based on your family’s finances. Since this aid comes from limited funds, applying early matters.

Here’s what you need to know about applying for aid sooner rather than later.

Get started on the FAFSA now

Submitting the FAFSA, particularly if you’re the first in your family to do so, can be complicated.

It helps to have all of the necessary information to complete the FAFSA before you start filling it out. And if you need additional assistance, there are online and in-person resources to help you complete the FAFSA.

“Some colleges and universities do select students for scholarships and grants based on a priority basis, and when your FAFSA was received could make a difference,” said Joe Cooper of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, in an email. Cooper, the executive director of Student Financial Services, added, “If you are able to, completing your FAFSA within the first couple months it’s available is usually a best practice.”

You need to submit the FAFSA every year that you want to be eligible for federal aid. The FAFSA for this upcoming award year, or 2022-23, will remain open until June 30, 2023. If you haven’t yet submitted the FAFSA for the 2021-22 award year, it remains open until June 30, 2022. But deadlines can differ for individual institutions and states, so check which deadlines apply to you.

Give yourself more time to make a college decision

By submitting the FAFSA early, you also give yourself more time to consider your college choices.

If you haven’t enrolled in college yet, you can submit the FAFSA to the schools you’re considering and compare your award letters before you choose one. The aid you’re offered, including federal and school-based, can differ among colleges.

Completing the FAFSA early can also give you more time to appeal your financial aid award by submitting a financial aid appeal letter or requesting a professional judgment, regardless of whether you’re submitting it for the first time or not. During the 2020-21 academic year, 29% of families who received a financial aid offer appealed for more aid, according to Sallie Mae’s 2021 study.

You can submit an appeal letter if you’re unhappy with the amount of aid you received or if your economic circumstances have changed since you submitted the FAFSA. Nevertheless, submitting the FAFSA early will ensure financial aid is still available when your letter is processed.

Regardless, completing the FAFSA in the first place makes you eligible for the more than $120 billion in federal aid the Department of Education distributes each year. And getting it done early “maximizes your potential to be considered for all available financial aid,” Cooper said.

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