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If you’re considering going to college this fall — or next — there is one way to ensure you’re considered for as much free money as possible: by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Completing the FAFSA makes you eligible for federal, state and some school-based aid, including loans, scholarships and grants. But for many students and families, it can be challenging and time-consuming to fill out the application, and the pandemic only added to that burden.
As of mid-August, 57% of the 2021 high school class had completed the FAFSA, a 4.3% decline compared with this time last year, according to estimates from the National College Attainment Network. Including both the class of 2020 and 2021, NCAN estimates that through the pandemic, over a quarter-million fewer students completed the FAFSA.
“We’ve seen disproportionate declines in high schools that are educating more students of color and more students from low-income backgrounds,” says Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN. “For those students, the pathway to college has never been easy … and these students often need assistance.”
Various circumstances played into the decline in FAFSA applications, some of which were a result of students not wanting to go to college during the pandemic. Those factors include:
Students became disconnected from support networks: Support from community organizations and high school counselors went virtual, limiting its reach.
FAFSA completion became less of a priority: Filling out the FAFSA and enrolling in college were put on the back burner during the pandemic, particularly due to the increase in economic, job and food insecurity, says DeBaun.
Interest in going to college decreased while classes were online: Knowing that college classes were completely online kept some students from filling out the FAFSA and enrolling.
Where to find help to fill out the FAFSA
Completing the FAFSA can be a confusing process, particularly if you’re the first in your family to do so. But for students who have questions or want help filling out the FAFSA, there are resources — and often, they're free.
» MORE: FAFSA checklist
“For high school seniors, there’s help out there. You have to ask for it and sometimes look for it, but there are organizations in communities that want to help students get this money for college,” says Traci Lanier, vice president of external affairs at 10,000 Degrees, a college access organization that supports students before and after enrolling in college. “Just get [the FAFSA] in because it’s free money and you don’t want to leave money on the table.”
College access community-based organizations
College access community-based organizations work to help students reach college, and that process includes filling out the FAFSA. Support is often offered at FAFSA completion events, where you can ask questions and make sure you’re filling out the application correctly, or through individual advising.
If there isn’t a college access organization hosting in-person events in your community, many offer online resources to help guide you.
Financial aid offices
Besides a community-based organization, “the best place for students to go is the higher education institution they want to enroll at,” says Maggie McGrath, director at College Now Greater Cleveland. “The financial aid office has people on staff that are ready to help walk them through [completing the FAFSA]. They know all of the ins and outs.”
In some cases, the financial aid office can point you to a local college access organization if you can’t find one, says Lanier. And although the FAFSA is best submitted early, it can be completed up to the time classes start, and sometimes after that, depending on the institution.
The Federal Student Aid Information Center
The Department of Education offers help completing the FAFSA through the Federal Student Aid Information Center. The Center offers live chats as well as phone support if you have questions on any part of the application.
Why you should fill out the FAFSA
The FAFSA is your ticket to being considered for federal financial aid, including aid you don’t have to repay, like scholarships and grants. And although fall classes have begun or are set to begin soon, it’s not too late for eligible applicants to receive aid such as the Pell Grant — need-based federal financial aid — for the 2021-22 academic year, says DeBaun.
For those looking to enroll in college in 2022, it’s important to submit the FAFSA as soon as possible because many colleges award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. For the 2022-23 award year, the FAFSA filing period opens on Oct. 1.
When deciding how to pay for college, first exhaust all free money offered to you before accepting loans. If you need to take out loans, use any federal loans that are offered to you before taking out private student loans.