For high school seniors, the start of college is far away. To pay for that college bill, however, they’ve got to start moving now.
College-bound students who haven’t submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, as soon as they can after Jan. 1 should do it sooner instead of later, say college aid experts.
FAFSA was established in 1992 to help students learn what types of financial aid they’re eligible to receive for college. It includes grants, scholarships and loans that are based in part on income and how much money a family should be contributing to a child’s education.
“It’s just one more family-involved step in the whole college process,” says Joseph Audette, vice president of education at NerdScholar.
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But some states have much earlier deadlines, such as February and March, and some states and colleges award money on a first-come, first-served basis. Connecticut, for example, has a Feb. 15 deadline for priority consideration, according to a NerdScholar list of deadlines. Federal, state and college deadlines can also be viewed at the U.S. Department of Education website.
Filling out the form isn’t an exercise in futility. The Central Texas Student Future Project found that low-income students who fill out the FAFSA increase their chances of enrollment by 200%.
Students should use the end of March as the absolute deadline to fill out and submit the FAFSA, because colleges typically assign financial aid in April and May, according to the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corp.
Since the FAFSA asks for specific numbers from a federal income tax return, it can be difficult to complete the form if a family hasn’t filed its taxes yet or doesn’t have all of its tax information at hand.
Estimated income tax numbers can be used on the FAFSA, Audette says, and errors can be corrected later by updating the application online. Pay stubs, W-2s and bank statements can be used to estimate taxes, along with a previous federal tax return.
Some students may be under the mistaken impression that they have to know which college they’re going to before submitting the FAFSA. They can list the schools they’ve applied to, and should soon have a better idea with letters of acceptance arriving around this time of the year in the mail, Audette says.
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“You don’t have to know exactly the schools you’re going to attend, you just have to know the schools you applied to and submit the FAFSA as quickly as you can,” he says.
And certainly don’t wait until you’ve been admitted to a college to submit a FAFSA form, says Pat Watkins, director of financial aid for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Some applicants are concerned that their admission to a college may be jeopardized if they apply for financial aid,” Watkins says in an email. “In many instances this is not the case. Admission to the college is made regardless of ability to pay.”
Submission errors on the FAFSA are common, as are numbers being input incorrectly by administrators, says Audette, who recommends double-checking the figures online.
Meeting the early priority filing deadlines that some states and colleges have will get applicants further up in a line where grant money is given out to those who apply first.
“The priority filing dates are what the states suggest you have the application in by to have the best chance of financial aid,” Audette says.
Whether filled out online or in hard copy, a little bit of financial literacy is needed, and the FAFSA should take about 30 minutes to complete if you have your tax information at hand, says Kevin Sully, school partnership manager at College Summit, a nonprofit organization that works to send low-income high school students to college. You won’t need an accountant to help you fill it out, but a financial aid will help, Sully suggests.
“The money is out there,” he says. “It is just up to them to take advantage of it.”
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