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FAFSA Changes Mean You Can Apply for Free College Cash Even Sooner

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Ch-ch-changes are coming to the FAFSA — and soon. Oct. 1 is the new open date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, giving students the chance to qualify for financial aid three months earlier than usual.

The FAFSA is required to determine if you’re eligible for federal loans, grants or work-study. Colleges also use the form to determine their own aid packages, including scholarships.

Not submitting an application is the biggest mistake a student can make when it comes to education financing. In 2014, students missed out on $2.7 billion in free federal grant money due to incomplete or unsubmitted FAFSA applications, according to a NerdWallet analysis from January. Of the 1,445,732 high school graduates who failed to fill out a FAFSA application, not all chose to go on to college. However, of that number, an estimated 747,579 would have been eligible for a Pell Grant — free money given to undergraduates who qualify based on financial aid. The average amount left on the table per eligible high school graduate was $1,861, NerdWallet estimated.

Even if you think you won’t qualify for aid, you should still try. Here’s what you need to know about the changes:

Oct. 1 is the new open date, but not the deadline

You can submit your FAFSA for the 2017-2018 school year beginning Oct. 1, 2016, using FAFSA On the Web, the Department of Education’s online portal. Previously, students had to wait until Jan. 1 to apply for financial aid, but the new open date gives applicants the chance to receive financial aid award notification earlier. The federal deadline to apply will still fall on June 30 of the school year for which you need aid — so June 30, 2018 for the 2017-18 school year. But apply as close to Oct. 1 as possible to ensure you meet states’ and institutions’ earlier deadlines.

Use 2015 tax returns on your form

For the first time, students and families can use “prior-prior year” taxes — in this case, 2015 tax information — to complete the form for the 2017-2018 school year. Come Oct. 1, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically transfer your parent’s or your tax information directly to your FAFSA.

Pick up to 10 schools you might want to apply to

On the FAFSA, you can enter school codes for up to 10 colleges and universities you plan to apply to. Don’t worry if you change your mind later. You can update your FAFSA anytime before the final deadline. Use the Federal School Code Search available on the Department of Education’s website to find schools you’re interested in.

Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.