While high school seniors are worried about what college they’re going to get into, the primary concern of many parents of seniors is how on earth they’re going to pay that college. It’s no surprise, then, that parents are anxious to get the financial aid process rolling and are wondering when to get started with aid applications. The short answer to the question, “When should I apply for financial aid?,” is “soon,” but the below points should provide a little additional clarification on application timing:
- If I could pinpoint one universal important date in the world of college financial assistance—one day to circle in red on your calendar—October 1 would be it. This is the day that the two main financial aid applications—the FAFSA (required by every U.S. college) and the Profile (required by many private colleges)—become available for the new school year. Parents of seniors, chomping at the bit to get their aid in process, try to relax for another few weeks and take the time to prepare for the financial aid application process. The FAFSA and Profile applications available online right now are for the current school year, and will do you no good in applying for aid for next year. Wait until October 1, when the aid applications for the upcoming academic year open up for submission.
- Now before you set your alarm to wake you up at midnight on October 1 to be first in line for financial aid, note that each college sets its own financial aid application deadline. While you may see Early Action or Early Decision deadlines as early as November 1, most colleges’ Regular Decision financial aid application deadlines do not come up until February or March. Tune in to each college’s website for the deadline relevant to your child, but you likely have plenty of time before you have to get those aid applications submitted.
- Having said that, there are some colleges that operate on a “first come, first served” basis in regard to some of their financial aid programs. As colleges track their funding levels, some may alter their awarding policies, becoming less generous as the weeks and months tick by. And yes, unfair as it may be, this penny-pinching can actually begin to occur before a college’s advertised deadline has passed. Therefore, it is likely in your best interest to get your application in sooner, rather than later.
- Now having said that, note that the financial aid applications ask you to report your assets as of the day you’re completing the form(s). If you have some big expenses coming up that will draw down your bank account significantly—a home renovation, a new car, etc.—you may want to wait to apply for financial aid until you’ve paid these big bills, in order to minimize your asset level, and, it follows, your expected family contribution. Be sure you don’t wait so long, however, that you miss a college’s deadline.
- And, whatever you do, do not wait until you’ve been accepted to a college to apply for financial aid. By the time you’ve been accepted, you’ve, in all likelihood, missed the college’s financial aid application deadline, and may have missed out on thousands of dollars’ worth of assistance. Financial aid applications should be submitted concurrently with admissions applications, or following only shortly thereafter.
We’ve all heard that “timing is everything,” and, when it comes to the financial aid process, while timing isn’t everything , it is certainly important. Even the earliest aid application won’t create aid eligibility for Warren Buffet—sorry, Warren!—but a late application could cost a very needy family thousands of dollars. Follow the above guidelines in order to put yourself in a good position to maximize your personal aid eligibility—whatever that may be—and minimize the stress of paying for college for your family.