Q: My son is applying for college for next year, and I see that we can submit the FAFSA form starting in October. Is there a benefit to doing it early rather than later? How am I supposed to fill out the form when I haven’t filed my taxes for 2019 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 starting on Oct. 1 rather than waiting until Jan. 1. You’ll use information from your 2018 tax return.
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.
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.
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 2018 tax return for the 2020-21 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 2018 -- 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 out 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, 2018 tax returns and W-2 forms, says Rick Castellano, a spokesman for Sallie Mae, which provides student loans. 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.