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By Kaitlin Mulhere
October 1, 2020
Rangely Garcia / Money

Filling out the FAFSA, which opens today for the 2021 academic year, is a crucial step in applying to and paying for college.

In a college application season like none other, the financial aid form is relatively unchanged. But it has a reputation for being a pain to fill out, to say the least, thanks to its 100-plus questions.

Don’t stress out too much, though. Changes over the past decade have made the form easier to fill out online. It typically takes first-time students under an hour to complete, according to the Department of Education.

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Here’s what students and parents need to know about the financial aid form.

What is the FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a form that determines your eligibility for a piece of the roughly $122 billion in student loans, grants, and work-study funds that the federal government distributes each year. More than 10 million students a year get some kind of money through the form, according to Federal Student Aid.

College students have to fill out the form every year that they’re enrolled in order to access that money, and for students who are considered dependents (that’s most undergraduate students under 24 years old), they’ll have to submit both their financial information and their parents’ information.

One thing to keep in mind: The FAFSA doesn’t give you money directly (or immediately), but it determines your eligibility for different types of aid.

Who Needs to Fill Out the FAFSA?

Everyone — seriously, everyone! — who’s planning to attend college in 2021 should complete the form. Filling out the FAFSA doesn’t require you take any of the loans or work-study options you’re eligible for, so it’s in your best interest to fill it out simply to weigh your options.

But every year there’s a population of students who don’t file the FAFSA. About 70% of families with college students filed the FAFSA for the 2019-2020 academic year, according to a survey from Sallie Mae. Students from middle-income families, defined as those earning between $35,000 and $100,000, were more likely to complete the form than their peers from lower- or higher-income brackets.

The reason why some families don’t file varies, but the most common one, according to the Sallie Mae survey, is that families think it’s a waste of time. That is, they don’t fill it out because they don’t think they’ll qualify for any aid.

But it’s still worth filing the form even if you doubt you’ll qualify. For one, unless you plan to pay for college without borrowing any money, you need the FAFSA to access student and parent loans from the federal government — for which there’s little eligibility requirements and no income cutoff. Many colleges will also require the FAFSA for scholarships, including tuition discounts or merit aid that is not based on your finances.

What’s New for the 2021 FAFSA?

Not all that much has changed for this year. The income level to qualify for an automatic $0 Estimated Family Contribution — students with a $0 EFC qualify for the maximum Pell Grant — rose to $27,000 from $26,000.

But one of the largest differences may just be in how families feel filling out the form. As it normally does, the form requires you to use older tax information (more on that below). But given that millions of Americans lost their jobs this year, it may feel pointless to answer questions about how much money you make when you’re no longer earning the same amount. In a survey back in April, for example, 40% of college students reported losing jobs, internships, or job offers.

What are families to do? You still have to fill out the form with the older tax information. For rising college freshmen, once you apply, contact the financial aid offices where you applied and ask about the process for adjusting your application to reflect your current financial situation. We’ve got more advice on how to do that here and here. Returning students can contact their financial aid offices as soon as they submit the FAFSA.

What Information Do You Need to Complete the FAFSA?

If you’re a first-time filer (a.k.a, not a returning student), you should start by creating an FSA ID. You’ll need information from your tax return and bank statements for savings and checking accounts. You’ll also need Social Security numbers for both parents and student.

This year, you’ll be using 2019 tax information to apply for aid for the fall of 2021. Most people who filed tax returns can use what’s called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically import tax information into the FAFSA form.

When Is the Deadline for the FAFSA for Fall 2021?

Technically, the deadline for the 2021-22 academic year isn’t until June 30, 2022. That means students attending college between July 2021 and June 2022 have a 21-month period to submit the form for aid for that year.

But you do not want to wait too long to fill it out. While you can access most types of federal student aid — including low-cost loans and Pell Grants — throughout the academic year, at least 9 states award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out. Other states have deadlines to apply for state aid as early as January or February 2021, and colleges, too, may have limited financial aid budgets.

So when should you fill it out? The sooner, the better. If you’re unsure, check for any “priority deadlines” in your state (see here) as well as at the colleges where you’re applying and fill out the form ahead of those.

This year, that’s especially important, since students may have to submit additional information, like unemployment benefits or medical bills, to colleges to show how their finances may have changed since 2019. That process can take a long time, especially if first-year students have to do it with each college they’re applying to.

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Where Do I Fill Out the FAFSA?

You can fill out the form at FAFSA.gov or via Federal Student Aid’s mobile app, myStudentAid. You can start the form on a computer and then finish it on the mobile app and vice-versa.

If you have questions about how to fill you the form, try free resources like the National College Access Network’s Form Your Future website or the government’s answers to common FAFSA questions.

Money also has guides to help you answer the trickiest questions on the FAFSA and make sure you’re qualifying for as much aid as possible.

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