COVID-19 makes it more important than ever for students to file for federal financial aid
Some college students are just trying to navigate a socially distant trip home for Thanksgiving. Other students feel stuck at the midpoint of their college or high school semesters, weighed down by staring at a computer screen for 10 hours a day.
While next school year might seem far off, it's time to start thinking about paying for it. And experts say not enough families are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which launched Oct. 1.
Filing rates have been steadily declining for years. Especially this year, with uncertainties mounting from the pandemic, experts are urging students to fill out their application as soon as possible.
Here's what to know about the financial aid application.
What is a FAFSA, and why is the application so important?
The FAFSA is the document for federal financial aid, so it's important to fill out in any case, said MorraLee Keller, a director at National College Attainment Network.
This year, amid pandemic uncertainties, the number of families filling out the FAFSA has beenlower. Through the end of October, 16.3% of high school seniors had filled out the application. That's down 16% compared with last year, according to Form Your Future's FAFSA tracker.
And in all, 71% of total eligible families reported filing last year, down from 77% in 2018-19, according to a 2020 report from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.
"The top reasons families don’t file the FAFSA is because they think they won’t qualify for aid," said Ashley Boucher, spokeswoman for Sallie Mae. "This couldn’t be further from the truth, because nearly all who apply will qualify for something."
College is a huge financial commitment, she said. "The last thing you want to do is pay more for it than you have to."
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Why is it important to fill out the FAFSA well before the deadline?
Keller recommended students fill out the FAFSA as early as possible so they can appeal if they need more financial aid.
Plus, filling out the application encourages students to talk through their tax situation and school budget with their families, said Michelle Barton of Bottom Line, a college advocacy group that works with low-income and first-generation students in New York City, Chicago and Boston.
"The earlier we have students working on FAFSA, the earlier we're aware of any barriers that may come up for them," Barton said, such as a parent they're not in contact with.
Another stumbling block, Barton said, is the random verification system. Students must track down multiple forms to back up what they've said on their applications. That can include tax transcripts, records of dependents and bank statements.
How has the pandemic affected the application?
The 2020 FAFSA is the same as 2019's on paper, Keller said.
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It's also possible that students might now qualify for more financial aid, too, as economic situations have deteriorated in some families.
"My best advice is to appeal for more financial aid if you've been affected financially by the coronavirus pandemic, especially if the parents have lost their jobs or experienced a furlough or pay cut," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com.
Keller noted that the 2021-22 FAFSA – which students started to file Oct. 1 – will be based on 2019 income, which was also pre-pandemic and might not reflect economic reality now.
So it may be more important to file but then appeal to your college to discuss how your financial situation has changed. The school's decision would be the final say and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.
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Story by: Elinor Aspegren ..Contributing: Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press