By Trea Branch | NerdWallet
For the first time since 2016, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will not be ready on Oct. 1 for the following academic year. Instead, students have to wait until December to fill out and submit a redesigned application for financial aid — including federal student loans, grants and work-study — for the 2024–25 school year.
Nearly 72% of college families didn’t know that the 2023-24 FAFSA became available on Oct. 1, 2022, according to a 2023 study by private student loan lender Sallie Mae. If families aren’t ready to go when the new FAFSA is released this year, they could miss out on vital aid to help them cover college expenses.
“We’re dealing with a truncated financial aid season,” says MorraLee Keller, senior director of strategic programming at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a nonprofit organization supporting college affordability. Keller says all students should do what they can to be ready when the new simplified FAFSA is released.
Here are steps you can take now to make sure you’re ready to go when the new FAFSA is released in December.
Find your FSA ID
Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is required to complete the FAFSA online, track the status of your application and make any changes and updates. It wasn’t required for the 2023-24 FAFSA, but it’s a must-have for the new one, according to NCAN.
If you’re an incoming first-year student, create your FSA ID by visiting studentaid.gov. If you’re a returning student but forgot your FSA ID, you can retrieve your username or password by selecting “forgot username” or “forgot password” from the login page.
Everyone who touches your FAFSA needs an FSA ID too. Parents and guardians who could access the form without an ID before will need to create one, says Keller — who advises all contributors to set up their FSA ID by this fall to avoid trouble accessing the application when it’s ready.
Track your school’s deadlines
States and schools can have financial aid deadlines much earlier than the FAFSA deadline. Missing an institution’s deadline could mean missing out on aid.
Incoming students can get their college list ready now and keep track of critical deadlines.
Many schools set priority deadlines in March before the relevant academic year, says Dana Kelly, vice president of professional development and institutional compliance for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Kelly says this gives colleges a sense of their first-year class and provides incoming students an idea of how much institutional aid they can expect before the May 1 deposit date.
Returning students should double-check their school’s deadlines and renew the FAFSA before then.
Because so much aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, you want to get in line for that aid by filling out the FAFSA as early as possible, says Rick Castellano, vice president of corporate communications at Sallie Mae.
Estimate the amount of aid you’re eligible for
Given that colleges and universities will experience a delay in the FAFSA filing process, students should estimate how much federal aid they’re eligible to receive ahead of time using the Federal Student Aid Estimator, says Bradley Barnes, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. An updated estimator is expected to be available by this fall.
The Education Department also released a 2024-25 Pell Grant lookup table. It can help you determine if you’re eligible for the need-based Pell Grant, which can give you up to $7,395 per year in aid that doesn’t need to be paid back. To use the table, you’ll need to know:
Your status — dependent or independent student.
Your family size.
Your and/or your parents’ adjusted gross income.
Your legal state of residence.
Contact your school’s financial aid office if you’re expecting less aid
The new FAFSA aims to make more aid available to more families. But this may not be the case for everyone. For example, families with multiple children in college could see significantly less aid. The federal government no longer factors the number of siblings attending college into the need-based calculation.
It’s crucial that families expecting less aid communicate with their financial aid offices, says Kelly. Schools are aware of the changes and understand that some returning students may be negatively impacted. According to Kelly, many schools are working to see what they can do at the institutional level to help.
But it all begins with the FAFSA. Every student can and should apply, whether seeking federal, state or college-level aid. Even if you plan to borrow, the FAFSA is your ticket to federal student loans — which often come with lower interest rates and more protections than private options.
Regardless of your income or what aid you believe you’ll be eligible for, completing the FAFSA is your best option for covering college costs.
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Trea Branch writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected].