- To get any college aid, students must file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
- For the 2022-23 school year, the FAFSA filing season opens Oct. 1 — and the sooner you file, the better.
- "Just about everyone is going to qualify for something," said Sallie Mae spokesman Rick Castellano.
The Covid-19 pandemic and economic downturn that followed made it even more difficult for many students and their parents to afford college just as costs went up.
Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $50,770 in the 2020-21 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $22,180, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.
Now, in order to obtain a four-year degree, nearly all students rely on some sort of financial aid.
"Financial aid is becoming a larger piece of the college admissions puzzle, as tuition costs continue to rise," said Marnix Broer, co-founder and CEO of EdTech platform StuDocu.
"Many students are choosing a college based on where they can afford, so it's more important than ever for students to understand their options when it comes to where the best financial aid may be available for them."
That's where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid comes in. Students must fill out the FAFSA to access any kind of assistance, including scholarships and grants, work-study and loans.
For the 2022-23 school year, the FAFSA filing season opens Friday, Oct. 1 — and the sooner students file, the better.
Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds.
The earlier families fill out the FAFSA, the better their chances are to receive aid, according to Manny Chagas, vice president of Discover Student Loans.
"Applying early can give families opportunities for federal, state and institutional aid like grants and scholarships," he said.
"The FAFSA opens the door to various types of funding opportunities; it's not just federal aid."
The Department of Education awards about $120 billion every year to help students pay for higher education. And beyond federal aid, you could also be eligible for financial assistance from your state or college.
In fact, while the amount of federal aid has declined slightly, state and institutional funds have increased significantly over the last decade, according to the latest data from the College Board.
Yet "there's a finite amount of aid," said Joe DePaulo, co-founder and CEO of College Ave Student Loans. That's why applying "early is absolutely helpful."
"Especially with state aid, those funds are there until they are depleted," added Sallie Mae spokesman Rick Castellano.
"Getting in line for aid is extremely important especially when a good chunk of it is first-come, first-served."
The pandemic has accelerated the problem of affordability. Still, more families skip the FAFSA year after year.
Last year, just 68% of families applied — a record low, according to Sallie Mae.
Among those who don't apply, most say it's because they didn't think they would qualify, studies show. In fact, 86% of first-time, full-time students at public four-year colleges were granted aid, Discover Student Loans found.
"Just about everyone is going to qualify for something," Castellano said.
Many factors, not just income, go into determining how much aid students receive, DePaulo added, including the total number of people in the household and the number of children in college, as well as other financial commitments such as a home equity loan or child support payments.
The application process itself is another hurdle, families say.
However, experts say you can complete the FAFSA form online at fafsa.gov or on the myStudentAid app in less than an hour, particularly if you have your paperwork, including W-2s and last year's tax return, on hand. Sallie Mae also has a free online FAFSA tool to help families navigate the process.
"For most families, it takes about 30 minutes," Chagas said.