In recent years, the cost of college has skyrocketed. The average student now graduates with about $28,000 in student loan debt, and the rising figure shows no signs of slowing.

The burden of student loans has prevented many young Americans from getting married, buying houses, or even moving out of their parents’ houses — yet many prospective college students are missing out on a major opportunity to get free money for college.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the form used by many U.S. colleges for considering your financial aid needs.

Despite the importance of the FAFSA, over 1 million high school graduates did not fill out this vital form in 2016-2017 — leaving billions in free money on the table, according to several studies.

Why is the FAFSA Important?

The FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid as well as other forms of financial aid.

The application works by collecting financial information from both you and your parents. From there, the Department of Education determines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is how much you and your family are expected to pay for your education.

Then, your college or university will put together a financial aid package by subtracting your EFC from the total cost of attendance. The package could include federal grants, subsidized loans, and work-study opportunities. You may also qualify for federal unsubsidized loans and PLUS loans.

In addition, the FAFSA is used for many scholarships and grants. It is a simple way for organizations to obtain your biographic and other information, and is a requirement for many funding opportunities. For this reason, every student should fill out the FAFSA — every year. 

How to Apply

The FAFSA is usually available starting on Oct. 1 and closes on June 30 of the following year. However, some colleges and states set earlier deadlines for applying for financial aid. For purposes of non-federal aid, it is better to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.

You can apply for the FAFSA online through the Department of Education’s website. It is free to apply. You will need personal and financial information for both you and your parents, such as your address, Social Security number, gross income, bank account balances, and tax information. In addition, the FAFSA will ask you to designate up to 10 colleges to receive your FAFSA information.

You can edit the FAFSA after you submit it, and will need to do so if something significant happens in your life, such as the addition of a new family member. All students should submit the FAFSA, even if you don’t think that you will qualify for financial aid. You will need to submit the FAFSA every year to qualify. 

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Tips on Getting the Most From the FAFSA

There are some steps that you can take to maximize your chances of getting financial aid. One of the most important things that you can do is to apply early. While this won’t impact your federal financial aid, it will have an impact on the amount of aid that you may receive from the state or your college or university. These institutions tend to have limited amounts of funding available, so getting your application in early can help boost your chances of getting aid.

Next, use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically populate your FAFSA. Not only will this make the process faster, it can also reduce errors and lower the chance of your application being pulled for further review or verification.

Another thing to watch for is mistakes on your application, such as a failure to use your full legal name, or leaving blank fields. Any error, no matter how small, can cause your FAFSA to be rejected. In turn, that can lead to you having to re-do your application, which can cause you to miss out on state and college financial aid.

You should also be sure to follow up on your FAFSA if your situation has changed. For example, if a parent has lost a job or suffered a serious illness, your EFC has likely been significantly reduced. There is a FAFSA appeal process that you can take advantage of, where you can submit additional information and request a review.

Finally, be sure to watch deadlines carefully and submit your FAFSA on time. While this may seem like an obvious tip, it’s an important one. Although you have until June 30 to submit the FAFSA, most colleges and universities have much earlier deadlines. Check with your school’s financial aid department and be sure to get your FAFSA in well ahead of time.

The FAFSA is a relatively simple way of getting free money for college. It can take as little as an hour or two to help you get thousands of dollars for college. This year, don’t leave free money on the table — be sure to fill out your FAFSA and get your full financial aid package.