The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is typically available in October for the upcoming school year.

However, due to enhancements designed to make the FAFSA more streamlined, the 2024–25 FAFSA opens in December 2023. This gives students and their families a two-month extension to gather materials, understand changes to the FAFSA, and make a financial plan. Some aid is first-come, first-served, so be sure to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available.

1. Review New FAFSA Changes

The simplified FAFSA has some changes that may affect how your financial need is calculated. Some things to keep in mind:

  • The form is now only about 40 questions long and a lot of information can be directly transferred from your and your parents’ federal tax returns.
  • Aid is calculated with a formula known as the Student Aid Index (SAI). In the past, this was called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This number is not what you are expected to pay but will be used in determining aid eligibility.
  • Gifts and contributions from family and friends for college, such as 529 plans held by grandparents, will not count as income. The only 529 plans you will report are ones owned by your parents or yourself.
  • The number of family members in college at the same time is no longer factored into calculations for aid eligibility.
  • For divorced parents, only the parent who contributes the most financial support (not necessarily the parent the child primarily lives with) will include their financial information.
  • The new FAFSA calculations expand Pell Grant eligibility to nearly two million more students.

2. Gather FAFSA Materials

Check the list of assets that need to be reported to make sure you don’t under- or overreport. In most cases you’ll be able to use the direct data exchange to input your financial information from the IRS into the FAFSA. Otherwise, you’ll need W-2s and tax returns from 2021. It’s also a good idea to have a record of financial assets on hand, such as checking and savings balances, investments, real estate (apart from the home you live in), and other information. Some families find it helpful to talk with a financial advisor prior to completing the FAFSA. You can also look for free financial aid workshops in your area; some states, like California offer free virtual or in-person options.

3. Create an FSA ID

You can create an FSA ID now. You’ll need this to log in to your FAFSA every year you are in college. If you are a dependent student, your parents need to create an FSA ID as well. With few exceptions, most students under 24 are considered dependents, even if your family isn’t planning to pay for college. If your parents are not US citizens, you are still eligible to fill out the FAFSA. However, they will not be able to create an FSA ID and may need to mail in forms that need signatures.

4. Estimate Your Aid

The Federal Student Aid Estimator can be helpful in understanding how your family’s numbers might line up—and how much you might be eligible to receive. Remember that the estimator is only for federal aid. It does not include nonfederal aid that you might receive from colleges or through private scholarships.

5. Focus on Your College Applications

Once you’ve set up your FSA ID and talked with your parents about expectations for filling out the FAFSA, you can take the time to work on your college applications. Getting your applications in order, working on your essays, and making sure your letters of recommendation are ready to go now will help you avoid crunch time in December.

When you start filling out the FAFSA, it will ask for a list of colleges. Good news: Your college list doesn’t need to be finalized before you fill out the FAFSA. The new FAFSA allows you to list up to 20 schools (up from 10 previously) so you can fill it with your potential college list. If you need to add more schools, you can do that once you’ve filed the FAFSA. It’s important to make any updates as soon as possible to take advantage of any aid that is first come, first served.

6. Fill Out the FAFSA (Even If You Don’t Think It’s Necessary)

FAFSA is not just for federal aid—many colleges use it to award state and institutional aid, including grants and scholarships. Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for aid, you should fill out the FAFSA every year you are in college. Most students qualify for some aid as there is no income cap. Not only that, but if your family’s financial circumstances change between now and when you’re admitted, having a FAFSA on file is often necessary for the financial aid office to be able to renegotiate a financial aid package.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

Discover® Student Loans encourages you to consult a financial planner before making financial transactions. You should also consult a tax professional for tax advice.

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