It’s that time of year again–your free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) can be filed. It seems earlier than before, right? That’s because this year, there’s an earlier filing date for the FAFSA: the application window opened October 1st. Don’t worry, the application deadline is still way off, but it’s a good thing to check on, because there are FAFSA deadlines at the federal, state, and even college level. (Colleges are being encouraged to set the deadline no earlier than February.)
I know it can be a hassle to apply for federal aid–I needed it for all four years of undergrad–but with some of the new tools, including the handy IRS Data Retrieval tool, the whole process is getting easier.
Earlier application opening
So why did the FAFSA open up earlier this year? According to Ann Carrns of the New York Times in her August 10, 2016, post, “Earlier Date for Filing Fafsa Form for College Aid,” the effort was made by the federal Education Department so they could better “align the financial aid process with the typical college admissions cycle.”
The other good news is that due to the earlier opening date, the FAFSA is based on the awkwardly named “prior prior” year of tax returns. Why is this good? Because in January 2016, you had to have all your 2015 tax records finished in order to apply for federal student aid for the 2016-2017 school year. In October 2016, you still only need your 2015 IRS documents for the 2017-2018 school year. Since families filed those tax documents back in April 2016, everything is ready and in the system.
To make it even more convenient, you can populate your IRS tax information straight into the online FAFSA with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. How does that work? According to the official FAFSA site, “Once in the FAFSA, navigate to the ‘Finances’ section, where the option to use the IRS DRT displays for eligible students and parents.”
If you’re like I was, you wouldn’t be able to afford going to college without a little help from the federal government. (Or, in my case, a lot of help.) But there are other reasons to complete the FAFSA. For example, a lot of private scholarships require you to be eligible for federal student aid, such as the Federal Pell Grant, in order to receive funds. If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you won’t know if you’re eligible or not, and you could be missing out on scholarship funding as well as loan opportunities. Here are some good things to know:
- You have to fill out the FAFSA for every year you want student aid. So if you filled it out in January for 2016-2017, you’re not off the hook for the 2017-2018 application.
- You can get an estimate of what aid you’ll be offered through tools like FAFSA4caster. Your financial aid office can point you in the direction for other tools.
- The easiest way to file is online through fafsa.gov, but if you need to apply on paper, you can do it that way as well.
- Some schools will file your FAFSA for you through your financial aid office, so poke your head in their office and ask!
The online form prompts you when there are errors, and it can fill in all the IRS information for you without your having to put in a lot of effort, so that’s certainly the easiest way to go. You can also search for the deadlines for federal aid applications in your state right from the fafsa.gov site. In short, it’s a pretty easy process, and even if you’re not sure you’re eligible, it’s a good idea to apply: you never know what opportunities it will open for you!