When to file the FAFSA to get more financial aid for college

Why now is the best time to apply for college grants

Whether it’s because of belt-tightening or the promise that the state will forgive student loans, families are suddenly paying more attention to financial support for college.

According to a new report from Discover Student Loans, more than half of parents of college students, or 58%, had no intention of applying for state aid but have now changed their mind.

“With current economic uncertainties surrounding inflation and recession fears, it’s understandable that some families are feeling the impact of college costs and are reconsidering applying for federal aid,” said Rich Finn, vice president of Discover Student Loans.

This is where the free application for federal student grants comes into play.

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As tuition increases, most families rely on a combination of resources to make college affordable. Income and savings cover more than half of college costs, free money from scholarships and grants accounts for about a quarter of the cost, and student loans make up most of the rest, according to Sallie Mae’s annual How America Pays for College report.

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“You want to maximize that free money first,” said Rick Castellano, spokesman for Sallie Mae, like scholarships and grants, “before you borrow it.”

However, students must complete the FAFSA to access assistance. For the 2023-2024 school year, the FAFSA filing season begins October 1—and the sooner students submit, the better.

The sooner families fill out the FAFSA, the better their chances of getting help, Castellano said, since some financial aid will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis or from programs with limited funds.

Scholarships are key to study affordability

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“FAFSA is the number one thing you can do to qualify for scholarships and grants,” Castellano said. “In the end, that’s free money that you don’t have to pay back and that should help make college affordable.”

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Scholarships are an important source of funding, yet only 60% of families take advantage of them, the educator says.

About 6 out of 10 scholarship recipients received these directly from their student’s school. These students received an average of $6,335.

The majority of families who did not take advantage of grants said it was because they never applied.

Why don’t more families fill out the FAFSA

According to Sallie Mae, 70% of families completed FAFSA last year, up slightly from 68% the year before, which was a record low. Up to 72% could apply this year, Discover estimates.

“My hope is always that more families complete the FAFSA,” Castellano said.

Among those who don’t apply, the most common reason is that they felt their income was too high to be eligible for the benefit, followed by believing the application was too complicated or they just didn’t know, Sallie found Mae out.

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In fact, “almost every family is eligible for some form of student aid,” Castellano said.

Many factors, not just income, determine how much support students receive, including the total number of people in the household and the number of children in college, as well as other financial commitments such as a home loan or child support payments.

The application process itself is another hurdle, families say.

However, experts say you can fill out the FAFSA form online at fafsa.gov or in the myStudentAid app in under an hour, especially if you have your paperwork, including W-2s and the last year’s tax return, on hand. Sallie Mae also has a free online FAFSA tool to help families navigate the process.

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