You Can Get Free Money for College — and Help Finding It

The FAFSA qualifies you for federal financial aid. And it's not too late to submit it for this academic year.
Colin Beresford
By Colin Beresford 
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.

If you’re considering going to college this fall — or next — submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA can ensure you’re considered for as much free money as possible.

Completing the FAFSA makes you eligible for federal, state and some school-based aid, including student 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.

The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) found a decline in high school students completing the FAFSA during the pandemic. The 2020 high school class had a 52% completion rate, an almost 2% decline compared to the previous year.

The number dropped further to 49.9% for the 2021 high school class. FAFSA completion numbers are still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Compared to 2019, about 70,000 fewer students completed the FAFSA during the 2022-23 academic year.

“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.

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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.

“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. These organizations offer support at FAFSA completion events, where you can ask questions and ensure you’re filling out the application correctly. They may also offer 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.

For those looking to enroll in college in 2024, 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 2024-25 award year, the FAFSA filing period opens in December 2023. The deadline for the 2023-24 FAFSA is June 30, 2024. When deciding how to pay for college, exhaust all free money before accepting loans. If you need to take out loans, use any federal loans first before taking out private student loans.

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