Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can definitely be time-consuming and complicated. If you think you’re unlikely to qualify for financial aid, you might be wondering why you should even bother. Do you have to fill out FAFSA every year?
With 2017 in full swing, college students who plan to enroll for the 2017-18 school year will need to complete a FAFSA if they are hoping to use financial aid.
But a FAFSA is important for more than just qualifying for Pell Grants. Here’s a look at why it matters to file your FAFSA each year.
When do you fill out FAFSA?
The window to file a FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year opened in October 2016 and will continue until June 30, 2017.
To be considered for financial aid for the 2017-18 school year, you’ll need to complete and submit a FAFSA by that date. But Lynne Baker, the managing director of communications for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, says that earlier is better.
“Students should file their FAFSAs as soon as possible after October 1st of the calendar year prior to the year they plan to attend school,” Baker advises.
“Filing as early as possible puts you in line for some aid, such as some state grants, that have limited funding and may be offered to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis.”
Additionally, some states, colleges, and universities have their own deadlines to receive FAFSA information to be considered for additional, non-federal aid. Check your college’s website or with your financial aid office to see when you must complete the FAFSA to meet these deadlines.
Do you have to fill out FAFSA every year?
Strictly speaking, filling out a FAFSA is not a requirement for attending college. “A family is free to opt not to apply for financial aid and to not complete a FAFSA,” says Baker.
However, Baker points out that the “FAFSA is a requirement for almost all need-based financial aid and many scholarship programs.”
This means if you hope to secure any kind of financial aid to pay for college, from grants to federal student loans, you’ll need to submit a FAFSA each year. “In order to be eligible for aid, you must file a FAFSA annually,” Baker says.
Why is the FAFSA so complicated?
The FAFSA can feel like an overly complex sea of paperwork. “Many families decide not to complete the FAFSA simply because it is too complicated or they believe they make too much money to be eligible for anything,” Baker says.
“Take the time to understand the FAFSA, the eligibility requirements, and how the information is used,” Baker recommends. Don’t rush through the application. Taking the time to get it right will be more efficient than having to correct errors or resubmit information later.
The FAFSA also offers tools that can help simplify the filing process, Baker adds.
If you’ve filed a FAFSA in the past, you can automatically input the information you provided in your previous FAFSA to your current application. The IRS Data Retrieval tool can also be used to auto-fill your FAFSA with relevant tax information.
Should you file for FAFSA if you won’t qualify for aid?
Maybe you haven’t qualified for much financial aid in the past, or you don’t think you’ll receive federal aid for the coming school year.
Even so, it’s still worth the time to file. In fact, the complexity of the FAFSA is actually a reason you should file, Baker says.
“The formula used to determine financial aid eligibility is very complex,” she points out. “The way to determine how assets may impact eligibility is to complete the FAFSA.”
It’s very possible that you will qualify for aid that you might not have expected. The only way to know for sure is to file and see what you’re approved for. This is especially true for first-time filers or for filers whose income, dependent status, or other relevant factors have changed recently.
Your FAFSA information “may also be used by schools to determine eligibility for institutional financial aid,” Baker says. “So if you don’t file a FAFSA, you might not get the opportunity to be considered for need or partially need-based institutional aid.”
This could mean that not filing your FAFSA could keep you from being considered for scholarships and similar programs.
What if you don’t plan to use federal aid or student loans?
Let’s say that you or your family are planning to pay for college out-of-pocket and don’t think you’ll need federal aid or loans. Do you have to fill out FAFSA every year if you don’t plan to use any federal help?
Filling out a FAFSA is still a good idea. It gives you access to federal student loans and other resources to help cover costs. Even if you don’t plan to use them, you might encounter unforeseen financial hardships or unexpected problems that could leave you reliant on aid.
Maybe a parent becomes unemployed and is no longer able to cover college costs, or a medical emergency means that your family’s finances are needed elsewhere. By filing your FAFSA, you can ensure your access to federal student loans if you need them.
If you don’t file FAFSA, by the time you realize you need to take out student loans it may be too late. Federal student loans might no longer be an option.
It’s better to have filed your FAFSA and have the option to take out federal student loans than to need that opportunity and not have it.
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