The Free Application for Federal Student Aid goes live on Saturday. And if reading that sentence gave you déjà vu, it's because, yes, we did just talk about this.
Every year, the FAFSA opens up on Jan. 1. Parents and students spend the first days of the new year digging up tax documents and huddling around a computer, hoping to get their own cuts of the $150 billion the United States Education Department disburses to more than 13 million students every year.
But this year, all of that is happening in the fall. President Barack Obama switched up the FAFSA schedule so the application would become available in October, lining up better with the college application season than before. He also announced applicants could use prior-prior year tax data as opposed to the old system of estimating your tax numbers and having to change them after the fact.
Whether the changes are truly better remains to be seen, but we can give advice either way.
File soon. Aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so you should submit your paperwork sooner rather than later. To give you an idea of how important it is to file early: When MarketWatch asked education undersecretary Ted Mitchell when he was planning to file the FAFSA for his college-aged daughter, he said, "We've got to be day oners."
Beware other deadlines. The federal deadline for filing the 2017-2018 FAFSA isn't until June 20, 2018. But the state you live in — and possibly even your school — likely have earlier deadlines you need to meet. For example, Maryland requires students to submit their FAFSAs before March 1, 2017. Vermont just wants students to do it "as soon as possible."
Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Avoid making a mistake inputting your tax data by hand. U.S. News and World Report recommends you take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which takes your information and imports it into your FAFSA.
Don't pay for help. If you can't figure out the FAFSA, check the Federal Student Aid website. Still having issues? Call 1-800-4FED-AID. Then take your questions to your guidance counselor. But don't pay anyone to walk you through the process, according to FastWeb. The info you need is out there for free.
Seriously, submit your FAFSA. Don't blow this one off. NerdWallet estimated that seniors left $2.7 billion on the proverbial table last year because they didn't complete their FAFSAs. That's about $1,800 per person who didn't submit their paperwork.