Elsewhere we explored the large amount of financial aid money available to students, with nearly $67 billion in non-loan (free) funds awarded to students through various sources for the 2013-2014 school year. This aid, whether federal or private, gets dispensed largely on the basis of the information students and their families plug into the ubiquitous Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
While students can employ several strategies to maximize FAFSA-oriented aid one stands alone in terms of its impact and broad relevance. Tip: File the FAFSA ASAP.
Here’s the thing. Do not get lulled into procrastination by the the various financial aid deadlines. While technically the FAFSA won’t come due until June 30 or so for federal purposes, many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for their various aid programs – some as early as January. And while you should certainly note these various dates, it is even more important to know that much of the money in the mix, particularly in regards to the best form of aid – grants – gets awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Sometimes this can simply mean less aid gets awarded to later filers and sometimes this means that later filers miss out altogether, with at least nine states awarding funds until they run out, after which even the most qualified of students is plumb out of luck. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hurt to file as early as possible and can hurt to file a bit later, even within the boundaries of the various deadlines.
In fact, according to a recent report by Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president of the college planning site Edvisors, data indicates that students who file their FAFSAs in the first three months of the year receive more than twice as much on average than those who file their forms later in the year, $6730 in grants for the early filers versus $3318 for the later ones. Indeed, the early birds get the worm. Ironically, the earlier filers tended to be from wealthier households, theoretically meaning that those who qualified most for the aid received less of it due to the timing factor.
So I can say little of more importance at this particular point on the calendar than get to it, and pronto. But as a bonus, here are some other factors to consider as you reschedule your evening:
- You can either download the forms or fill out the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
- The form takes only about an hour to complete.
- You can fill out the FAFSA prior to having all your current income and tax information at hand. Simply use last year’s numbers and whatever information you do have and amend it later. In other words, don’t let a lack of W-2s and 1099s keep you from the advantages of early filing.
- Beware the varying deadlines by state. Find a complete listing of these here.
- For a complete set of instructions and advice regarding the FAFSA, be sure to at least skim through Edvisors’ indispensable “Filing the FAFSA,” available for free in a variety of formats. At the bare minimum, be sure to skim through the section titled “Common Errors to Avoid” prior to final submission of your data.
- Do be sure to do all you can to position your funds for maximum effect. You can find some helpful hints here, here, and here.