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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the key to being eligible for financial aid—and to tapping into many resources to help pay for college. It’s used to evaluate family income and determine the student’s level of financial aid eligibility, including for federal grants, federal work-study, and federal student loans.

Most American families use resources outside of their income and savings to help pay for college. In fact, according to How America Pays for College 2018, half of all the money that paid for college came from resources outside of student and parent income and savings. Scholarships and grants paid for more than one-quarter of costs (28%), while another quarter (24%) was paid by parent and student loans.

To be eligible for federal financial aid, families must complete the FAFSA. Many colleges also use the FAFSA to guide decisions on school-based aid, including scholarships from the college. Three-quarters of undergraduate families (75%) filed the FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year. For the upcoming 2018-19 school year, 62 percent of returning college students have filed the FAFSA and another 9 percent had started the process.

Middle-income families are more likely to file a FAFSA (82%) than low-income (74%) or high-income families (66%).

Proportion of families who filed FAFSA 2017-18, by income

Why some are rushing to file

In 2016, the Department of Education changed the date that families can submit the FAFSA from January 1 to the prior October 1. The goal of the change was to give families more time to complete the form as well as to provide them with more time to evaluate financial aid award letters from colleges and universities.

Most families, however, are not taking advantage of submitting the FAFSA earlier. About one-third (31%) of those who filed the FAFSA for the 2018-19 school year did so in the new timeframe, October to December 2017, and about two-thirds (69%) filed in the traditional timeframe, January 2018 and later.

Those who filed early had specific reasons:

Other families were prompted to file early based on communications they received: 6 percent said they followed up after they got a renewal FAFSA reminder in October, while another 6 percent said their school advised them to complete the FAFSA early because school scholarships were contingent on this, as was early registration for classes.

It’s free, so why not apply?

The FAFSA is an important tool in accessing financial aid, and it’s free, so why aren’t all families filling it out and submitting it? Research uncovered three main reasons.

Among those who did not apply

If you’re seeking resources to help pay for college, filing a FAFSA should be a given; it’s one of the most important steps you can take.

Learn why, early or not, you can start your search by filing the FAFSA.

Find out more about How America Pays for College 2018.

Three top strategies for managing student loans
The paying-for-college combo families rely on
Using student loans to pay for college
First-in-family college students pay for college differently
Most families are using scholarships to pay for college—is yours?

About this study

How America Pays for College 2018, a national study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, explores how much families of undergraduates spend on college, how they pay for it, and how they reach their funding decisions.

Source: How America Pays for College 2018, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.