The school season may have just begun, but it's nearly time to start thinking about next year.
That's because college students and their families can begin to submit two key applications for financial aid on Oct. 1 to help pay for higher education for the following school year. And filing early has its perks: better access to limited funds and a quicker response from schools on aid packages.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA as it is known, is arguably one of the most critical documents to get help paying for higher education.
Current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students must fill it out annually if they want to get access to federal loans, grants and work-study programs. Some states use the information to determine state-based aid as well.
It is free to apply and can be completed between Oct. 1 and June 30. Until a few years ago, applicants had to wait until January to file the FAFSA, but the U.S. Department of Education bumped up the deadline and made it easier to apply. Still not everyone has caught on yet.
A survey of 2,000 families by Sallie Mae found that only 25% of families filled it out in the first month and 52% waited until January or later. But a number of forms of aid — such as scholarships, grants and work-study aid — are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it pays to move quickly, said Rick Castellano, a spokesman for Sallie Mae.
Some students may also want to complete a CSS Profile, which about 400 private and state schools use to determine institutional aid.
The CSS can also be completed as early as Oct. 1 but deadlines vary by school. It requires much of the same information as used on the FAFSA. Unlike the FAFSA, it costs $25 to complete the profile for one school with additional fees for further schools. The cost might be waived for certain students in need.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Anyone who is planning on pursuing higher education should fill out a FAFSA to see what kind of aid they're eligible for.
It can be completed online at studentaid.gov/fafsa or via the myStudentAid app released last year. Students and their families will need Social Security numbers, recent tax returns, some basic financial information, as well as a list of schools they are interested in and other basic information.
Students should check the websites of their prospective schools to find out if they need to complete a CSS profile and other school-specific paperwork or deadlines.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
After you've completed the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process your application within a few days (or around a week if you submitted on paper.) Once processed, you'll get a copy of your student aid report, or SAR, which summarizes the information you provided. Review it and make sure all information is accurate. If there are any errors or omissions, complete or correct those as soon as possible.
The SAR will include your expected family contribution, a figure that determines your eligibility for aid. The SAR is sent to the schools you listed and each school will review and determine what aid, if any, it can provide. You can list up to 10 potential schools on the FAFSA.
Castellano notes that to be considered for state grants, some states require you to list state schools first.
If you feel that your family's financial circumstances are unusual or if they change dramatically after you file the FAFSA, contact the financial aid office at the schools you've applied to. They can update the information before making a decision.
The sooner you apply, the sooner a school might reply with their aid package too, said Eva Dodds, a director at Collegewise.
"It's really hard to look a student in the eye in June and say 'Gosh I wish you had applied in November," Dodds said.
"The earlier you apply, the more those financial aid officers can do, they need your data to know what they can do for you."