When it comes to finding a way to pay for higher education, one of the first steps families should take is completing the Free Federal Student Aid Application (FAFSA). This form helps the federal government determine if students are eligible for federal scholarships, work study programs, and federal college student loans. Many states and schools also use the data collected by the FAFSA to determine eligibility for additional aid, and if so, how much.
Interestingly, the FAFSA becomes available to families October 1st of the year before the academic year in which the grant would apply. This means families with one student going to college for the 2023-24 academic year would complete the FAFSA effective immediately.
However, individual colleges also set their own deadlines for the FAFSA, so you may be wondering if there are any benefits to starting now. I personally see no reason to wait if you or your loved one is definitely going to college or university next year. Anyhow, I reached out to some higher education experts to find out when they think you should fill out the FAFSA, and here’s what they said.
FAFSA planning: earlier is better
PNC Bank’s Liz (Mowry) Canini says filing the FAFSA is the most important thing you can do as you plan for college. The form is key to unlocking scholarships, grants, state aid and federal grants, and colleges and universities use FAFSA information to create grant packages, she says. However, some schools and states have limited amounts of student aid available, and at least some of that aid is given to those who apply for it first.
With this in mind, Canini recommends submitting your FAFSA form as early as possible.
“Otherwise you run the risk of not having access to this help,” she says.
Will Geiger of Scholarships360.org adds that some states like Idaho, Texas and Connecticut even have priority FAFSA deadlines to encourage students to submit their applications earlier and to consider any possible need-based financial aid.
Some states and colleges set their own FAFSA deadlines, as we mentioned earlier. While the federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30, the deadline for colleges on your list may be earlier, he says.
“If you even have college with an earlier deadline, it saves you a lot of headaches so you don’t have to rush to complete your FAFSA.”
More reasons to start now
Jayson Matlock, who serves as the assistant director of financial aid at Southern Utah University, also says that if you’ve never applied before and don’t know exactly what you’re getting into, it makes sense to start with FAFSA right away.
While the application has become easier to understand and simpler to use over the years, Maylock says it can still be a chore to complete.
“Starting the process early allows students to identify knowledge gaps that are preventing them from completing the application and allows them to seek advice from a professional for timely help.”
Student loan expert Fred Amrein of PayforEd also says that filing the FAFSA as early as possible makes sense, especially this year.
Why? Because the impact of the Student Debt Relief Application may create additional system volume that will affect the FAFSA and the StudentAid.gov website.
In other words, waiting to be filed with the FAFSA could mean that you face lengthy waits for your information to be processed. Ultimately, this could result in you missing out on any help you may be entitled to or waiting longer than normal for feedback to help you make financial decisions about your school choice.
Pam Sittig, who works as the director of financial aid at Grinnell College, says another benefit of submitting early is that the student can focus on other important tasks, such as
“Remember that even after the FAFSA has been submitted, students should carefully check schools’ websites to see if any other forms or documents are required and meet the deadline for submission,” says Sittig.
Completing all financial aid applications early not only relieves the student, but also the parents and guardians.
There’s no reason to wait
Ultimately, there aren’t really any good reasons to wait to complete the FAFSA for the 2023-24 academic year or any other year in the future. Melanie Gillespie, who is currently director of financial aid at Tri-County Technical College, says completing FAFSA is the stepping stone to college entry and should be completed early so multiple offers can be evaluated to determine best fit for to identify the student.
Additionally, early entry into the FAFSA provides students with the knowledge they need to make the best financial choices for their families.
“Certain grants and scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and this funding could make the difference between a college or university being affordable or unattainable,” says Gillespie. “The sooner a student graduates from FAFSA, the more time they have to consider cost versus aid and make an informed decision about each school’s viability.”
With that in mind, it makes sense to start working on the FAFSA form for yourself or your dependents as soon as possible. Ideally, you can start the form now and finish it in the next few weeks.
Fortunately, you can start FAFSA online and at home, and studentaid.gov has a variety of resources to help you.