The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (a.k.a the FAFSA) is a vital part of the college application process. If you skip it, you could be missing out on grants, scholarships, work-study and low-interest student loans. While the application opens every year on Oct. 1, it’s not due until several weeks — and in many cases — months later.
Even so, getting it done in a timely manner is important so you don’t miss out on crucial financial aid. That's because the FAFSA isn’t only for federal aid. Colleges also use it to determine state and institutional aid, and some private scholarships also require the form.
In other words, the FAFSA can open doors to all kinds of cash. Don’t assume you don’t qualify, even if you’re a higher earner. Here’s what to know about the three types of deadlines:
The federal deadline lines up with the end of the academic year
The federal deadline for the FAFSA falls each year on June 30. This is the deadline for all the federal aid programs, including Pell Grants for lower-income students and all types of federal student loans. For current college students, that means they have until June 30, 2023 to apply. For students heading to college in the fall of 2023, the federal deadline is June 30, 2024 — that’s 21 months after this fall’s FAFSA opened.
State FAFSA deadlines vary widely
State financial aid — for students applying to colleges in their home state — is another important source of financial aid, and these deadlines fall much earlier than the federal deadline. Some states even award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so you should apply as early as possible, regardless of the deadline. Thirteen states, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois and Indiana, recommend submitting your FAFSA as soon after Oct. 1 as possible for access to certain grants. Other state deadlines range from February to May.
“State financial aid programs vary enormously,” says Jeff Levy, co-founder of BigJ Educational Consulting. “The programs are different, the award amounts are different, the deadlines are different, and which schools will accept them are different.”
According to a 2021 report from the College Board, a non-profit organization that handles the SAT and other standardized testing, five states accounted for 48% of state aid awarded in 2019 — California, New York, Texas, Florida and Georgia. But nearly every state has some type of grant or scholarship — sometimes several — to encourage students to attend college in state.
State aid can be based on financial need, a combintion of need and merit, or merit only without financial need as a consideration, such as Georgia’s Hope Grant. You can research your state higher education agency with this interactive map.
Many states and cities also have “promise” programs, which offer free or reduced tuition to residents that meet certain eligibility criteria. Often, they’re reserved for students attending two-year colleges, but some apply to four-year institutions, including programs in New York, North Carolina and New Mexico. Check out College Promise’s map to see a thorough list of programs.
Institutional deadlines are equally important
Colleges give out thousands of dollars in their own institutional aid every year, particularly private non-profit colleges. In fact, “the largest source of grants and scholarships for college students comes from the institutions themselves,” Levy says.
Here again, FAFSA deadlines vary from school to school, and there can even be multiple deadlines at the same school depending on which application round you’re in.
“For example, if a student is applying in the early decision round at a particular college, the financial aid deadline may be as early as Nov. 1,” Levy says. “If they’re applying in the regular decision round to the same college, the financial aid deadline may be as late as January or February.”
Even if you’re not applying early decision, colleges may have priority deadlines for institutional scholarships. Because you only submit the FAFSA once, you’ll need to submit it and any other required forms by the earliest deadline among the colleges you're applying to, Levy says. That might be by Nov. 1 (or earlier if your state is first-come, first-served).
The bottom line: There’s no singular FAFSA deadline, so pay attention to deadlines in your state and at the colleges you’re applying to.
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