THE BLOG
01/06/2014 02:35 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

Maximize Your Access to Financial Aid: Meet Deadlines

I know that title might get me in trouble with some of my colleagues who caution against adding pressure to an already tension-filled process of the college search. But the advice that follows is not intended to scare students and families. It revolves around a fundamental --basically easy but extremely important -- element of the college decision: meeting deadlines.

All students and families should do the following when completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):

Don't miss out on incentives for submitting the FAFSA -- Some colleges and universities will offer financial incentives to families who submit the FAFSA by a specified deadline. These incentives may not add a lot to the bottom line, but every dollar counts when financing a college education. My institution, Augustana College in Illinois, has been offering a $500 Early Filers Award for several years. Families who submit the FAFSA by February 1 receive a grant of $500 and will get their award letter earlier than those who wait until later on in the process. Be on the lookout for similar awards at other colleges.

Meet deadlines, no matter how early -- Institutional, state and federal resources are limited and deadlines are established to help distribute resources. The simple fact is that many funding agencies/institutions use deadlines to determine who receives funds and who does not, regardless of need eligibility. Frequently the FAFSA submission date is a key factor in determining eligibility for need-based awards, and missing a deadline by just a day can mean the difference in attending your dream school or being faced with unmet financial need of nearly $5,000.

For example, Illinois has dealt with diminished resources by closing the eligibility window for its Monetary Award Program (MAP). In recent years, this has occurred with very little public notice. If students do not submit the FAFSA on time, they lose out on Illinois' most direct support for high-need families. While we work closely with our families to make sure they're ready, we can only do so much. Meeting deadlines is critically important. This is not a scare tactic.

Submit the FAFSA to any college or university that is a possibility -- no matter how remote the possibility -- Many families think they should apply for financial assistance only at the colleges about which they are most serious. Such self-imposed limits are wrong-headed. In my 20+ years in enrollment work I can point to countless occasions when a student has changed his or her mind about a college following summer orientation or after a change in life or family circumstances (i.e. death in the family, loss of a job, reduced income, unanticipated health-related expenses, etc.). Sadly, if the student has not already submitted the FAFSA to a college, he or she may no longer have access to institutional, and possibly state or federal financial aid programs that had an earlier FAFSA submission deadline. Play it safe and submit the FAFSA to every possibility, even if it is Mom's or Dad's alma mater or that local school that seems way too close to home. And, even if you do not believe you will qualify for financial assistance, you must submit the FAFSA if you want to borrow through the Federal Stafford Loan program, which helps reduce the immediate out-of-pocket cost of attending college.

Use estimated (yes, use last year's figures or your best estimate!) tax information when completing the FAFSA -- I frequently hear from families that they are late tax filers, or can't submit the FAFSA until their taxes are complete. The first point may be true for many families, but the second point is always false for every family. It is acceptable -- even encouraged -- to complete the FAFSA using estimated information. This is especially pertinent to meeting deadlines. The FAFSA allows for updates once tax information is done, which is of course necessary should you estimate for the purposes of the FAFSA. However, don't let a slow accountant be the enabler you blame on missing a deadline because you are waiting on your taxes.

Submit the FAFSA even if you've not yet heard about your admission status -- Another mistake some students and families make is to wait until they've heard an admission decision to submit the FAFSA. I understand the logic, but it's misguided and can put a student at a disadvantage. Submit the FAFSA no matter whether you've heard or not. Follow the same procedure and recommendations -- whether you've been deferred, wait-listed, are in limbo or are waiting patiently.

This is serious stuff and is too often ignored or misunderstood. Don't delay. Complete and submit the FAFSA by the deadlines recommended by each school to which you are applying in order to maximize your access to financial assistance.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is now available to you for the academic year 2014-15. You can complete the FAFSA at www.fafsa.gov. While there are other applications to apply for financial aid, the FAFSA is the most commonly used and is the only application that determines eligibility for federal financial assistance, like the Pell Grant and Federal Stafford Loan. It also is used to determine eligibility for many state financial aid programs as well as institutional financial aid. It's a critical part of the process and gets a lot of attention. Now it's just more important than ever to pay attention earlier.

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