Teresa McUsic

If you have a college student, file the FAFSA ASAP

Don’t wait to file the FAFSA student aid form for your graduating seniors.
Don’t wait to file the FAFSA student aid form for your graduating seniors. Star-Telegram

If you have a college student, here are three good reasons to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid right now.

First, those who submit the form in the first three months of the year receive about twice as much grant money (the kind you don’t have to pay back) as those who wait until April or later, according to data from Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com

“This is probably due to students missing deadlines if they file the FAFSA later,” Kantrowitz said. Grant money is often available first come, first served, and once it’s all awarded, it’s gone.

Almost 70 percent of kids from families making under $50,000 tend to wait until April or later to file, while 70 percent of families making $100,000 or more file before the end of March, Kantrowitz found.

Second, in addition to federal grants and loans, filling out the FAFSA also unlocks most grants and loans available through Texas and individual schools, said Kristina Tirloni, spokeswoman for TG, a nonprofit corporation based in Round Rock that promotes higher education.

The form is used for all three levels of aid: federal, state and school, she said. Kantrowitz said state and institutional grants are where late filers are missing out the most.

“More than 1.1 million students might have received as much as $3.8 billion more in state and institutional grants (averaging about $3,400 each) had they filed the FAFSA during the first three months of the FAFSA application cycle,” he said.

During the 2012-13 school year, Texas students received $389 million in state grants, according to TG. Students at schools in Tarrant County received $31 million in state grants and $19 million in state loans.

Finally, there is no downside to finding out what you could get in financial aid.

“There’s no reason not to fill out the FAFSA,” Tirloni said. “It takes just 45 minutes, and it could open you up to money you wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

After the form is submitted by mail or online, the schools where a student has applied will send financial-aid packages in March or April to show what a family’s cost would be. That does not mean the student has to accept the offer.

“Filing the FAFSA does not obligate the parents to borrow or to pay for school,” Kantrowitz said. “Filing the FAFSA just enables the student to qualify for financial aid.”

Surprisingly, the number of students filling out the FAFSA has decreased from a high of 21.9 million in 2011-12 to 20.7 million for the 2014-15 school year, Kantrowitz said. The decrease is likely due to the improving economy, he said, with fewer older students returning to college.

Just 66 percent of Texas students filled out the FAFSA in 2011-12, Kantrowitz said. That’s better than in 2007-08, when the state figure was 58 percent, but it pales in comparison to the more than 80 percent who filed in Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont and the 90 percent who filed in the District of Columbia.

“Some states are better at getting students to file the FAFSA because they have more aggressive FAFSA completion efforts, both in the high schools and the colleges,” he said.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce sponsors 42 GO Centers that focus on helping students with college and scholarship applications and the FAFSA, said Glenn Spoons, education manager with the chamber.

The centers are in high schools and middle schools in Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield and at some libraries and community centers.

“The resources are there, and there are extra events for parents to participate with during off-hours,” she said.

So take an hour to fill out a form — and see what you may get.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@savvyconsumer.net

Getting help

In person. GO Centers have counselors for college-bound students in 42 locations, including libraries, community centers, and Fort Worth middle and high schools. The Fort Worth school district is holding 17 financial-aid sessions in English and Spanish at high schools in February and March.

By phone. The Texas Financial Aid Information Center hotline is 888-311-8881. The Federal Student Aid Information Center hotline is 800-433-3243.

Book download. “Filing the FAFSA” is available as a free download if you register at www.edvisors.com.

Online. The FAFSA can be filled out at www.FAFSA.gov. The form has prompts and explanations on it. Also check out the FAFSA4caster calculator to estimate your aid and expected family contribution (EFC).

Other websites. Adventures in Education (www.aie.org) and www.CollegeForAllTexans.com.