FAFSA season starts: What you need to know for financial aid

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NEW YORK – The Free Application for Federal Student Aid filing season starts Oct. 1 for the 2023-2024 school year. If you plan to attend college next year, experts say you might want to fill out the FAFSA application as close to the opening date as possible.

Many institutions award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, recommends students get started.

“It is a good idea to do it on the earlier side,” said McCarthy. “Whenever (colleges) run out of money, then that’s all the funding they have for the year.”

Whether this is your first or fifth time filling out the application, here are some recommendations and background for completing this process and getting financial aid for your college career.

—HOW DOES FAFSA WORK?

The FAFSA is a free government application that uses financial information from you and your family to determine whether you can get financial aid from the federal government to pay for college.

The FAFSA will send your financial information to the schools listed in the application that you are interested in attending — up to 10 schools. Each school that admits you will send you a financial aid package. The amount of financial aid you get depends on each institution.

This application is also used to determine eligibility for other federal student aid programs, like work-study and loans, as well as state and school aid. Sometimes, private, merit-based scholarships also require FAFSA information to determine if you qualify for their specific aid.

“Completing the FAFSA is probably the single most important thing you can do to get in line for scholarships, grants and other federal financial aid for college,” said Rick Castellanos, vice president of corporate communications at Sallie Mae.

Nitro College, a website that offers advice for college students, has a step-by-step guide listing all the questions in the FAFSA.

—WHO SHOULD FILL OUT THE FAFSA?

Anyone planning to attend college next year. Many decide not to apply thinking their family’s income is too high to be considered, but McCarthy recommends all students fill out the application.

“There’s no commitment, there’s no charge,” said McCarthy. “See what happens, you may be surprised. And if not, you have it on file in case you change your mind.”

Students and parents can use the federal student aid estimator to get an early approximation of their financial package.

—HOW DO I FILL OUT FAFSA?

The first step is to create an FSA ID to help you log into your account electronically. If you are a dependent student, your parents will also need to create an account.

Before starting your application, McCarthy recommends using your permanent personal email, one that is "available to you and that you check regularly.”

Here are the documents you will need to fill out your FAFSA application:

—Your Social Security Number

—Your driver’s license number, if you have one

—Your Alien Registration Number, if you are not a U.S. citizen

—Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned.

—Your bank statements and records of investments.

—Your records of untaxed income.

The application offers the option to get your federal tax return information from the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

McCarthy also recommends students use their physical Social Security card when they fill out the application, not only to make sure they use the right number. but to double check their name.

“It’s much easier to avoid an issue in the first place,” said McCarthy. Some students who use their middle name in their daily lives make the mistake to list it as their first name on the application, she said. This causes issues with the application that will need to be resolved.

—WHEN SHOULD I FILL OUT FAFSA FOR FALL 2023-2024?

Meeting deadlines is important to avoid missing out on any possible financial aid you might receive. Aside from the federal deadline, students need to know if their state also has a deadline to be considered for financial aid.

The FAFSA application for the 2023-2024 year opens on Oct. 1 and must be submitted by June 30, 2024.

Each state has different deadlines for financial aid. For example, California has a March 2, 2023 deadline and Florida has a May 15, 2023 deadline for state financial aid programs.

You can check your state’s deadline here.

—DO I HAVE TO RENEW MY FAFSA?

The FAFSA needs to be filled out every year you plan to attend college. However, it usually becomes easier to navigate the process after you’ve done it once.

“I feel a lot faster every year,” said Haley Campbell Garcia, 28, who filled out the FAFSA for the first time in 2013 and has filled it out every year since, for her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

When you renew your application, some information is already pre-filled, but tax information and other items need to be updated.

—WHAT INFORMATION DO I NEED FROM MY PARENTS FOR FAFSA?

If you are filing as a dependent student, you’ll need to provide the financial information of at least one parent. If you list both parents, you need to know how they filed their tax return — jointly or separately — and their official marital status, said McCarthy.

“It seems like it should be obvious, but sometimes people don’t necessarily know whether their parents are separated or actually divorced,” said McCarthy. You can find the official marital status of your parents by checking their tax return.

Parents need to create their own FSA IDs. When your parents fill out the application, they can manually input their tax return information or use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

Parents will need this information to fill out the FAFSA:

—Social Security number or Alien Registration number (if they are not U.S. citizens).

—Federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned.

If a student is applying for the 2023-2024 school year, parents need to use their 2021 federal tax return information.

If you have questions about income information, you can call the federal student aid office at 1-800-433-3243.

—WHAT IF MY PARENTS ARE NON CITIZENS WHEN I FILL OUT FAFSA?

Your parents’ citizenship status does not affect your eligibility for student aid. The application doesn’t ask for your parents’ legal status in the country.

If your parent does not have a Social Security number, students should enter all zeros on the application. Also, parents without a Social Security number won’t need to create a FSA ID, but will need to sign the application by printing and mailing it to the financial aid office so the student’s application gets processed.

For more details on non-citizen parents you can visit studentaid.gov.

—HOW CAN I SPEAK WITH MY PARENTS ABOUT FAFSA WHEN THEY'VE NEVER DONE IT BEFORE?

Whether you are a first generation college student or your parents are immigrants, having to explain FAFSA to them can be challenging.

The way Jessica Sansarran, a 25-year-old resident of Orlando, approached this issue was by reading FAFSA guides to her parents and communicating her frustrations with the process.

“I told them ‘you know, this is complicated for me too'," said Sansarran, whose parents are from Guyana.

Anastasia Acerno, 21, approached this process similarly.

“I would just ask my parents for all their tax documentation, wait for them to find it, and then just ask them the questions myself, instead of having them go through the application,” said Acerno, who graduated from the University of Albany.

—WHAT IF MY FINANCIAL CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE CHANGED SINCE 2021?

If your (or your family’s) financial situation has drastically changed, you need to contact the specific institution that you are planning to attend. Each college handles special circumstances differently, said McCarthy.

—WHEN WILL I RECEIVE MY FAFSA FINANCIAL AID PACKAGE?

FAFSA applications take three to five days to process, according to the student aid website. However, when you receive your financial aid package will depend on your institution. Usually, students get their financial aid package shortly after their admission offers.

—WHAT IF I MADE A MISTAKE IN MY FAFSA?

If you made a mistake filling out your application, you need to correct your FAFSA form. You can do this by logging in with your FSA ID, go to the “My FAFSA” page and select “make corrections.”

In some instances, if the changes cannot be done through the FAFSA portal, students will need to reach out to their institution’s financial aid office to make corrections.

—WHAT IF MY FINANCIAL AID IS NOT ENOUGH TO PAY FOR MY COLLEGE?

If the financial aid package from the college you plan to attend will not cover your college expenses, there are alternatives.

You can look into scholarships that might help lower the cost of attending college or student loans. There are two types of student loans: federal and private. Federal student loans usually offer lower interest rates than private loans.

—WHERE CAN I FIND MORE HELP TO FILL OUT FAFSA?

A lot of information about FAFSA can be found on the studentaid.gov website, but if you have more specific questions, you can speak with the financial aid office of your desired institution.

From filling out basic questions to a more in-depth understanding of your financial aid package, your college or community college’s financial aid office can help.

In Yvette Solano’s case, she requested help from someone in the financial aid office that spoke Spanish.

“For me, it was about feeling comfortable asking questions and understanding the information,” said Solano, 25, who attended San Diego City College and graduated from Cal State, Los Angeles this summer. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of asking for help.”

McCarthy also recommends looking for college access organizations that provide free help completing the FAFSA.

Students or parents can also call, email or live chat with the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

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