New supplies, new clothes, new start. Perhaps you are more than excited to embark on college life, take on challenges, and make new friends. This enthusiasm might wear off a bit when you look at the sticker price, though.
Let’s face reality: The expenses of attending college are getting more and more alarming. According to Educational Data, from 2010 to 2022, the cost of tuition at public 4-year institutions has increased by 31.4%. Even more daunting, since 1963, tuition at American universities has risen by 747.8%. Except for students whose families are in the wealthiest bracket, most find themselves struggling with those steep, face-value price tags.
Fortunately, the federal government provides billions of dollars annually to help freshmen like you pay for college. Your ticket to this financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA. However, rumor has it that the aid might run out at any time, and only the earliest applicants can receive their share of these funds.
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But First, What Is The FAFSA?
“The FAFSA is the application used by all colleges in distributing federal financial aid,” says Brad Barnett, Access and Enrollment Management Director at James Madison University, Virginia. “So in order to apply for federal grants, federal loans, or federal scholarships, you have to fill out the FAFSA form. “
Back in the past few years, FAFSA used to be a tedious, time-consuming paper with over 100 questions to answer. That’s about three times longer than an income tax form! But you can forget about it now: Starting in 2017, it can be completed and submitted at studentaid.gov.
The online version has been simplified using skip logic. Applicants will only receive relevant questions, so the amount of time needed to finish the form might reduce. According to the Department of Education, students only take 23 minutes on average to fill out the new FAFSA.
How to fill out the FAFSA form
The FAFSA is open on October 1 every year. There are 3 types of deadlines:
- College deadline: School deadlines are typically the earliest. They vary from school to school, so it’s best to check out the website or contact the college’s office for more information.
- State deadline: In case you are applying for financial aid from your state, check the deadline here.
- Federal deadline: June 30 is the last day you can apply for federal aid for the following academic year.
Generally, you should have until June 30 of the following year to submit the form. While that does sound like a lot of time, applying as soon as possible is often recommended. Otherwise, the aid might run out, as people say.
And, yes, they do have a point!
Is FAFSA First Come First Serve?
The short answer is “sort of”.
Across the U.S., some states currently handle financial aid on a “first come, first serve” basis. These include:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
What’s the case for the other states, then? Does FAFSA run out of money? Except for the ones listed above, states and universities will make sure every student can access financial aid. The type of aid you receive, however, depends on when you file for the FAFSA. Grants and scholarships (or, you might say, “free money”) are limited and often the first to go. Less desirable types, such as loans, are always available.
To give you a better idea, I will go over all the options you have and see which one runs out the fastest:
Grants are awarded to those with exceptional financial needs or those who belong to a specific group and have eligibility requirements. For example, the Pell Grant usually goes to students with an annual family income of below $40,000, while the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant is for those whose guardians died due to military service after 9/11.
Among all the forms of financial aid, grants are the most well-known and quickest to go. There is no surprise, though: All types of grants don’t have to be repaid, making them a preferable option. Additionally, students can receive more generous aid the sooner they submit their applications. Therefore, if you go for grants, it really pays to file your FAFSA as soon as possible.
Scholarships are given to those with outstanding athletic achievements or academic merit. So if you have ever heard the rumor that only those with good grades can apply for financial aid… well, it’s true for this type only!
Next to grants, scholarships are some desirable packages. Each school and state has a limited fund for scholarships, and this fund can run dry as well. However, because the requirements are strict, your high school transcript matters more than when you apply. Eric Cooper, a former scholarship holder at the University of Illinois, noted, “Filing your FAFSA on October 1 doesn’t really give you a leg up on someone with impressive GPA or athletic credentials”.
The third type of financial aid is work-study, which provides part-time jobs for grads and undergrads who need money to cover their education expenses.
This program promotes work relevant to the major and community service. Your application date and the level of financial need will both affect the package. Your earnings have to be within the Federal Work-Study award. That means you cannot work as many hours as you want.
In the past, work-study federal aid wasn’t a top choice for most people. Nonetheless, more and more people are taking these offers, so the employment pool might shrink if you don’t file your FAFSA soon enough.
Finally, we have the least desired form of financial aid: Loans. Obviously, it’s money you borrow and must pay back with interest.
Loan funds are unlimited and don’t follow the “first come, first serve” basis. Direct Subsidized Loans are available to students who demonstrate a significant need for financial support, and the federal government will cover the interest on these loans while they are in school. Direct Unsubsidized Loans, on the other hand, are not based on financial need, and interest will begin to accumulate once loan funds are distributed.
With little to no requirements, filling out the FAFSA and applying for a student loan has never been easier. To many, though, it’s a risky path that encourages young people to take on debt like no other. This is especially true when costs for a bachelor’s degree have risen at a distressing rate, far outstripping any wage increase that has occurred over the last few decades.
In such a context, Gen Z is becoming more cautious with the idea of carrying debt on their shoulders as graduating seniors.
Speed And Accuracy Are Essential
So, is FAFSA first come first serve? Long story short, you will have a better chance of getting a grant if you apply early. If you wait until the end, you may end up with increased loan money in your aid package.
That’s why we have these words of wisdom from literally any recent grad: File your FAFSA as soon as possible if you don’t want to carry on million of dollars of debt. Yes, it’s really hard to keep track of all the deadlines, especially during the college application process when countless deadlines are happening at once. Still, applying early for financial aid can be the best college funding move you can make!