Early FAFSA Deadlines

In Paying for College on Oct 17, 2016

It's important to pay attention to deadlines for financial aid applications. The deadline for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is especially important, since the FAFSA determines eligibility for most federal, state and college aid. It is best to apply sooner rather than later, even when you apply by the deadline, since some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Do not wait until the last minute to file the FAFSA.

With the switch to prior-prior year (PPY), the start date for the FAFSA has moved up by three months, from January 1 to October 1. The deadline, however, has remained unchanged. It is still June 30 or the last day of enrollment, whichever comes first. So, the FAFSA season is now 21 months long instead of just 18 months. For example, applications for the 2017-2018 FAFSA may be submitted starting on October 1, 2016 and ending on June 30, 2018. The FAFSA must be completed and submitted by midnight Central Time on the deadline day.

Students who file the FAFSA earlier tend to qualify for more financial aid. On average, students who file the FAFSA in the first three months get more than double the grants, on average, of students who file the FAFSA later.

This is partly due to the FAFSA being used to apply for state and college grants, in addition to federal grants. Some state grant programs, for example, have very early deadlines or are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, until the money is depleted. The advice to file the FAFSA early applies even some federal student aid, such as campus-based aid, which includes the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study (FWS). Each college has a fixed allocation of federal campus-based aid funding, so when the funds run out, there is no money left to award.

Unfortunately, more and more state grant programs are switching to earlier start dates each year to contain costs.

  • Thirteen states award state grants on a first-come, first-served basis or until funds are depleted according to the 2017-2018 FAFSA, up from 10 states the year before. These states are Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Washington. Missouri also has a February priority deadline and a final deadline in April, but funds are likely to run out sooner.
  • One state has a February deadline: Connecticut.
  • Nine states have March deadlines: California, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island and West Virginia (Promise Scholarships). Oregon also has a March deadline for private scholarships and Texas cuts off grants for students at public colleges in March.

A big unknown is whether colleges will move up their deadlines for students to file the FAFSA to qualify for the college’s own financial aid funds. Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote a letter to college presidents urging them to leave their college financial aid deadlines unchanged. However, many colleges are moving up financial aid deadlines for students who apply early action or early decision. This will allow the colleges to provide the early admission students with actual financial aid award letters when they are admitted early, instead of just estimates.

Some colleges may provide financial aid award letters earlier than in previous years. Generally, colleges start assembling a student’s financial aid packages after the student is admitted. However, the earlier availability of the FAFSA may allow colleges to start the process sooner. Thus, instead of sending out financial aid award letters and notifications in late March or early April, some colleges may be able to send the award letters a few weeks earlier, perhaps in early March. This will give students and their families more time to make a decision before the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date (Decision Day).

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