If the FAFSA Isn't On Your Radar, You Could Be Losing Free Money

If the FAFSA Isn't On Your Radar, You Could Be Losing Free Money

Time is short when you're a high school senior. Between SAT prep, college applications, campus visits — oh yeah, and actual schoolwork, not to mention having a social life — you've got plenty on your plate. But taking a few hours to fill out your FAFSA can pay off in the thousands, even if it's the last way you want to spend your Sunday.

Think of the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as the key to unlocking free financial aid from the federal government, the state and even your future school. Free money for college — pretty straightforward, right? Well, a new analysis from NerdWallet found 36% of high school graduates in 2017 didn't fill out their FAFSA. That might not sound like a big share, but that effectively left $2.3 billion in federal grant money on the table. Yep, that's billion with a "b."

The site estimated that more than 1.2 million high school grads in 2017 didn't fill out the form at all, although 648,191 would have been eligible for the Pell Grant. This type of aid, based on family income as determined by the FAFSA, is the largest source of federal financial aid. About half of all 2017 grads would've been eligible to receive it. (Note: The analysis also takes into account grads who didn't apply to college.)

Broken down by student, that comes down to about $3,583 in Pell Grant money (the average award for the year) that went unclaimed — and that still doesn't account for any other financial aid, work-study or federal student loans that you may qualify for via the FAFSA.

It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but a few thousand bucks could help cover the cost of tuition, fees, textbooks and other school expenses. And, it's hard to think about it now, but it could also mean taking on fewer student loans, which will have a huge impact on your money once you graduate. And FYI: The max Pell Grant award for the 2017–2018 school year is $5,920.

So for those of you planning to complete this college-application must, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tips for Filing Your FAFSA

1. Get It Done ASAP. FAFSA season officially began on October 1 to apply for aid for the following academic year. Some financial aid is first-come, first-served, so the sooner you complete it, the better.

2. Check Your Deadlines. If you're not sold on filing right away, at least know when your deadlines are. These vary by state, and some universities have their own, so it's important to check based on where you plan to attend.

3. Get Your Parents On Board. If you're a dependent student, your parents will fill out their own FAFSA. They'll get their own FSA ID and fill out a new FAFSA form for every aid year, too.

4. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. The FAFSA now accounts for your family's finances based on tax data from two years prior to the start of your aid year, which makes earlier filing easier and more accurate. That means if you're applying for the 2018 to 2019 school year, your parents will use their completed 2016 tax info.

If your family's financial situation has changed in 2017, you may want to research the appeals processes for your prospective schools if you need a financial aid readjustment come spring. You'll still want to file your FAFSA now using 2016 data, though.

5. Remember to Fill It Out Every Year. Household finances, as well as available aid money and eligibility, change every year, which is why it's important to fill out your FAFSA for each year you're in school. You may find that you don't qualify for some aid one year, but the next year you do.

RELATED: 12 Key Terms You Must Know About College Financial Aid


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