The beginning of the annual college financial aid application season is here.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is available for the 2018-2019 school year beginning today, October 1. Filling out the FAFSA is required to access any of the billions of dollars that get handed out each year in college grants, loans, and work study awards.
This is the second application cycle since the U.S. Department of Education moved up the financial aid timeline by three months. And this year, the process of applying will actually look different, thanks to some security updates that were made to an online tool designed to ease the process of filling out the form. (More on that change below).
Here is a list of tips to help you fill out the form successfully, including a guide to what's different this year. (If you have any remaining FAFSA questions afterward, check out our roundup: Everything You Need to Know About FAFSA.)
First, a reminder: Everyone should file a FAFSA.
Let's say your family earns too much money to meet the strict cutoffs for need-based grants. In that case you don’t need to waste your time on the FAFSA, right?
Money sees a version of this question every year. In reality: Every student who is considering college next year should fill out the FAFSA. Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for federal grants, most states and many colleges also use the form to award grants and scholarships. And it's required to take out any federal student loans, which are cheaper and safer than private market loans.
“If you have questions about whether you should fill it out, just assume that you should,” says Jasmine Hicks, who travels around the country talking to students about the FAFSA as national field director for Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for young adults.
Start by creating an FSA ID, and before you begin filling out the form at fafsa.ed.gov, gather your 2016 tax return and W-2 forms and current bank statements. This year you'll be using 2016 tax information to apply for the school year that starts in the fall of 2018.
You'll also need Social Security numbers for both parents and student.
Relax. The FAFSA process can be a headache, but it’s not impossible.
One of the first obstacles Hicks says she faces when talking to students about filling out the form—particularly in under-resourced communities—is calming their nerves. Students and their parents have heard so much about how daunting the form is, with its 100-plus questions.
It's true that the applications is long (some experts say needlessly long), and a few questions are tricky. But many of those questions don't apply to the majority of applicants, so your family may be able to skip over them. And last year’s change—allowing families to use older tax information—means the form should be easier for most applicants to fill out, since they’ll have finalized tax returns to pull income information from. (In the past, when you were required to use more recent tax information, many families estimated their income, and then had to go back and update it after filing their taxes.)
If you have questions about specific parts of the form, check out Money’s guidelines for answering tough questions on assets, income, and investments. If you need more specific answers, call the financial aid office at the colleges you’re interested in and ask for help.
Pay close attention to various deadlines, and submit the form as early as possible.
Procrastinating can cost you: While federal grants won’t be affected by the date you file, some states and colleges give out limited award money until it runs out. Pay close attention to “priority deadlines” on college websites, as well as those for state and agency programs.
Do you have to fill out the FAFSA right on October 1? No, says Debbie Schwartz, founder of the financial aid website Road2College. But it is a good idea to get the form in during the month of October, Schwartz says.
That’s especially true if you're planning to apply in the early decision pool or if you live in states such as Illinois, South Carolina, and Washington: These states, along with at least five others, award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Check your state deadline on this list, maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
You can fill in some FAFSA information automatically, but the process has changed.
About that change we mentioned earlier: For a few years now, FAFSA filers have been able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically transfer pertinent income information from tax returns into the financial aid form. This was especially important last year, when a rule change meant families could use older tax information on the form.
The tool was a big deal because it meant that, in theory, you could breeze through several of the FAFSA questions, reducing the time it took to file the form—and eliminating many errors.
But in March, the tool was taken down after identity thieves tried to use it to steal information, and the Department of Education has said the tool will be up and running when the FAFSA opens for business. It will work a bit differently, though. To solve for the privacy concerns, the process will now be a "blind submission." Instead of seeing the income numbers that are being pulled in from the the IRS, you'll simply see a note that data was transferred from the IRS. You will not be able to review or change that information.
The information will be coming directly from the IRS, however, notes Erin Powers, spokeswoman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators—so if families are confident they filed their tax return correctly, they should be comfortable knowing the tax information being imported is correct.
It's still unclear whether many colleges will adjust their own financial aid timelines.
After the FAFSA release date moved up three months last year, the big question was whether colleges were going to send out earlier award notices—which would give families more time to compare financial aid offers and weigh how much a given college would cost.
So far, a majority of colleges haven't made large changes. But 21% of private four-year colleges did move up their priority aid deadline for regular application students by one or two months, and 15% of public four-year colleges did, according to a survey from NASFAA.
About a third of both groups sent out notifications for need-based financial aid earlier, while most merit aid awards still arrived with acceptance letters.
Yet because last year's FAFSA change was so dramatic, many colleges said they planned to see how the first year went before altering their own calendars—so it's possible more colleges will send out earlier aid notifications this year. A survey of 115 mostly private colleges found that more than half expected their competitors to move up their notification dates.
If you receive aid letters as early as December or January, remember that for regular admissions, you generally have until May 1. Don't feel pressured to commit before you've seen financial aid packages for all the colleges you're interested in.
This post has been updated to clarify when Schwartz, of Road2College, recommends families should submit the FAFSA.