Q: My son is applying for college for next year, and I see that we can submit the FAFSA form starting on October 1. Is there a benefit to doing it now rather than later? How am I supposed to fill out the form when I haven't filed my taxes for 2018 yet?
A: The timeline for applying for federal financial aid changed two years ago, and you can now submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid on October 1 rather than waiting until January 1. It's a good idea to submit the FAFSA as soon as possible because some colleges award their aid on a first-come, first-served basis. You'll also find out where you stand for aid awards faster. "Those who complete and submit the FAFSA on or soon after October 1 will receive their Student Aid Report sooner and may receive financial aid award letters from schools earlier," says Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae, which provides student loans.
You generally have until June 30 to submit your FAFSA, but some states and schools have earlier deadlines. Check the deadline with the financial aid offices of the schools you're considering. Also find out whether the schools use the CSS Profile, which is an additional financial aid application that 400 major colleges require. See the CSS Profile page for more information and a list of participating colleges.
The tax information that the FAFSA requires also changed two years ago. Instead of using your info for the current tax year, you use the data from your previous tax return -- which would be your 2017 tax return for the 2019-20 school year -- so you don't have to wait until the end of the year to file the FAFSA. However, if you've had any changes to your income since 2017 -- say, you stopped working, or you switched to a lower-paying job -- contact each school's financial aid office to explain the reduction in income, ask for a review of your file using the new information or learn about the appeals process.
You need to file a FAFSA to receive federal financial aid, as well as aid from many colleges. Even if you don't think you'll qualify for aid, it's still a good idea to fill in the form. Some schools have increased their income levels for aid, and the application may also be required to qualify for other types of scholarships at some colleges.
Before you fill out the form, parents and students should create a Federal Student Aid ID and password and gather Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank statements, 2017 tax returns and W-2 forms, says Castellano. (See FAFSA.gov for more information about creating your FSA ID). Then go to FAFSA.gov to fill in the form -- the Department of Education redesigned the site this year to make it easier to navigate. You can also use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which can speed up the process by automatically transferring information from your tax return into the FAFSA. See the Department of Education's graphic for the steps to transfer tax information into your FAFSA form.
For more information about the steps to take to file the FAFSA, see the Department of Education's FAFSA guide.
One new development this year is the Department of Education's free myStudentAid App, available from the Apple App Store and Google Play, where you can complete your FAFSA on your iPhone or Android device. Castellano warns to watch out for look-alike apps that charge money. "Remember that it's always free, so watch out for sites that charge fees or make promises that sound too good to be true," he says.
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