Don’t miss out on your opportunity for federal student aid.

By Lauren Phillips
September 24, 2020
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With unemployment rates at record highs, all areas of the economy in disarray, and school for all ages looking nothing like how it looked even nine months ago, it’s no surprise that college plans—both for current students and prospective students—are getting disrupted, too. The logistics of actually attending college during coronavirus are already a mess, with many schools offering only remote classes or implementing extreme measures to keep students and staff safe, but affording college is also getting more challenging.

With some 13 million people unemployed in the U.S. as of August (about 5.8 million were unemployed in February, pre-pandemic crisis), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many families are suffering some loss of income, which makes paying for anything—including college—much more difficult. Many people are reassessing their plans for paying for college and are even looking for new ways to figure out how to pay for college, according to a new survey from Discover Student Loans.

According to the survey of 1,500 U.S. parents of college-bound students, 39 percent of parents who did not plan to apply for federal aid now plan to apply because of the pandemic and its resulting economic crisis. Forty-eight percent of parents lost income because of the pandemic, and 26 percent said they planned to appeal their student’s financial aid package to reflect changing financial situations because of COVID-19.

The application for federal aid is FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which offers families the largest source of financial aid to help pay for college. The office of Federal Student Aid distributes more than $120 billion in grant, work-study, and loan money every year to help people pay for college or career school, and the only way to get part of that money is to apply through FAFSA.

With so many people reliant on FAFSA for aid—and so many newly planning to apply—it’s then surprising that so few people know when FAFSA opens or when FAFSA is due. According to a March survey from Discover Student Loans, only 24 percent of parents knew that FAFSA opens in October, and half believed that FAFSA is available year-round.

If paying for college out-of-pocket, using a 529 plan, and getting money from scholarships and grants aren’t options (or still don’t cover the full cost of college), student loans are the last option, and should be thought of as a last resort. FAFSA determines eligibility both for federal aid and for federal student loans, which have features that make them more borrower-friendly than some other loans. With that in mind, here are answers to two top questions about FAFSA.  

When does FAFSA open?

FAFSA opens October 1, 2020. This is the 2021-2022 FAFSA form, meaning any aid offered as a result of the form will apply to the 2021-2022 school year.

When is FAFSA due?

Each FAFSA form is open for 18 months, so the 2021 FAFSA deadline is June 30, 2022. The 2020-2021 FAFSA deadline is June 30, 2021, and any corrections or updates must be submitted by September 11, 2021.

Those are federal deadlines for FAFSA, though. Individual colleges and states will have their own deadlines that may be well before the federal deadline. Rising college students and their parents should check with the college they plan to attend for their deadlines; current students should know their college’s deadline and plan to resubmit FAFSA every year they’re in school. The Federal Student Aid office also suggests getting your college’s definition of the deadline—is it the date the form is processed, or the date the college receives your processed FAFSA information? Knowing the difference can help you avoid missing any opportunities for student aid.

Each state has its own FAFSA deadline, and all are listed on the official FAFSA deadline page. Just know that you don’t want to mess around with FAFSA deadlines: Just because you have 18 months to complete FAFSA doesn’t mean you should take 18 months. (This is no time to procrastinate.)

“Given the weight of this year’s uncertainties, it’s critical that families apply as early as possible when the application becomes available, because some schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis,” says Manny Chagas, vice president of Discover Student Loans, in a release sharing Discover’s survey results.

Many state deadlines recommend applying as soon as possible after the FAFSA October 1 open date to take full advantage of aid options. Completing your FAFSA early doesn’t mean you’re stuck, though: If your financial situation changes (or has already changed) significantly, the office of Federal Student Aid recommends submitting the FAFSA as directed and then contacting the school you plan to attend to explain the changes to your situation. This may make it possible for you to get more aid.

If you didn’t fill out the 2020-2021 FAFSA yet because you thought you wouldn’t need it but you or your family has lost income, you can still file that form, too—you may be too late for state or college deadlines, but you may still qualify for federal aid. You can learn more about applying for financial aid during coronavirus at the office of Federal Student Aid’s website.