Most students realize they have to fill out the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid—to be eligible for need-based financial aid. What they may not realize is that the sooner the form is submitted, the more money you might get. The new FAFSA deadlines can help.

Even more confusing is that each state manages its grant deadlines differently, regardless of federal policy. In states such as Arizona, individual schools set their own procedures for how aid is allocated. All this means students most in need of financial aid might not be the ones getting assistance.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab reports that many low-income students are adversely affected by arbitrary deadlines. Some states have deadlines more than a year ahead of when a student needs the funds, and others do not publish explicit deadlines. Instead, students are counseled to talk with financial aid counselors. “There has been a general trend towards adding deadlines or moving deadlines earlier, putting more students at risk for loss of aid from filing after these cutoffs,” write Russell Cannon and Sarah Goldrick-Rab in Too Little? Too Late: The Timing of Financial Aid Applications.

Deadlines make sense for states planning their spending. If they have a certain amount of funds for a year, students who file before the deadline can be taken into account so dollars are evenly disbursed. The problem is two-fold. First, many students are unsure of college plans a year before heading to school. Filling out a FAFSA during a junior year of high school, for example, is not an intuitive step. Second, there’s a general assumption that the federal deadline and state deadlines would match. Without extensive counseling outreach, few prospective students have any idea that different entities are involved with their financial aid package.

LETTING STUDENTS KNOW ABOUT FAFSA DEADLINES

The Education Finance Counsel works to get out the message to students and families that they must file as early as possible. Their members are state agencies and non-profits that work locally on financial aid issues. “These organizations have found that the best way to increase early and on-time FAFSA filing is to engage with students and families face-to-face and to provide free, personalized assistance; they have also found that it is critical to tailor their programs to the specific needs of students and families in their state,” says Michelle Streeter, EFC communications manager.

One federal policy change has made FAFSA filing easier, especially given the early deadlines of some states. Prior-prior year is a difficult name, but it means families don’t have to wait till current tax returns are completed before applying for aid. The financial documentation from a year earlier can be used.

Communication is the key to making sure students know the state deadlines for FAFSA filing. States with large numbers of late applications may need to consider alternate means of distributing aid so that all have access to the maximum funds for which they qualify.

Cannon and Goldrick-Rab estimate “Nearly half (45.6%) of Pell-eligible students living in states with deadlines or known suspension dates for need-based grants under-file the FAFSA, submitting it after those deadlines have passed.”

Parts of the problem are getting worse. During the past 10 years, state deadlines have moved earlier and earlier. Community college students, typically relying most heavily on Pell grants, have student populations least likely to be planning far enough ahead to meet such deadlines.