Unlock the College Financial Aid You Need This School Year

Those who submit the FAFSA early stand the best chance at getting free money for school.
Cecilia Clark
By Cecilia Clark 
Updated
Edited by Des Toups

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🤓Nerdy Tip

Is the new FAFSA available? After a weeklong "soft-launch" period, the redesigned FAFSA for the 2024-25 academic year is now available 24/7 at FAFSA.gov. Due to major processing delays, you won't be able to make changes to your submitted FAFSA until mid-March, at the soonest.

You can still submit the 2023-24 FAFSA until June 30, 2024.

Despite the headlines, college is still the surest path toward better lifelong earnings. But a degree is far more likely to pay off if you haven't borrowed a small fortune to get it.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a key step in making college affordable. Applications for the 2023-24 school year opened on Oct. 1, 2022, with a deadline of June 30, 2024.

The 2024-25 FAFSA will be delayed from the typical October 1 date to open in December 2023. Those who make a practice of applying early stand the best chance of getting more free money for school.

D. Jean Hester, who oversaw college enrollment and admissions at schools in Ohio and Oregon for over a decade, advises getting in line as quickly as you can. While the federal government doesn’t run out of money for need-based aid, colleges and states do.

When you submit the FAFSA, you are applying for need-based aid that can make a big difference in where you decide to go to school and how much debt you’ll face after graduation. Every dollar you get in grants, scholarships and work-study is one you won’t have to beg from family or borrow.

Filing early also means you’ll get your financial aid offer from the colleges you apply to sooner, Hester notes, allowing you time to compare offers or resolve any discrepancies.

“It’s one of those things you just need to get out of the way,” she says.

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Types of aid covered by the FAFSA

The FAFSA is used to calculate your family’s Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Subtract the EFC from your school’s official cost of attendance to reveal your financial need; the completed FAFSA then serves as your application for financial aid to help fill that hole.

Beginning with the 2024-25 FAFSA, the Student Aid Index or SAI will replace the EFC. Colleges and universities will use this new calculation to discover the amount of money a student can put toward college and how much financial aid they can get.

A completed FAFSA unlocks these types of need-based federal, state and school aid:

  • Pell Grants.

  • Work-study.

  • Scholarships.

  • Grants.

The maximum Pell Grant award for the current aid year is $7,395. This number will likely increase for the 2024-25 award year. Any combination of grants, work-study and scholarships can cover some or all of the difference between the school’s official cost of attendance and your family’s expected financial contribution.

The great thing: These types of aid don't need to be repaid.

You also need to complete the FAFSA to access federal student loans.

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Watch your student loan debt tally

After completing the FAFSA, you are likely to be offered subsidized federal loans as well; they are called financial aid because the government pays the interest on them until you graduate. But you are required to repay them like any other loan.

The FAFSA also serves as the application for unsubsidized federal loans, which aren't tied to need. For freshmen, the amount is capped at $5,500 a year, but that rises to $7,500 by junior year.

If you need to borrow money beyond that amount, you could get a private student loan.

Any loan — whether subsidized or unsubsidized or private — becomes part of the debt you’ll have to cope with once you graduate. A NerdWallet analysis suggests the high school class of 2022 could face an average debt of nearly $40,000 by the time they graduate college.

Student loans from our partners

Sallie Mae Undergraduate Student Loan logo
Check Rate

on Sallie Mae

Sallie Mae

4.5

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Sallie Mae Undergraduate Student Loan logo

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Fixed APR 

4.5% - 15.49%

Min. credit score 

Mid-600's

Check Rate

on Sallie Mae

College Ave Private Student Loan logo
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on College Ave

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Min. credit score 

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