Heading to college next year? Fill out your FAFSA form now

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By Erin Eagan

Did you know that 40 percent of all federal aid-eligible students don’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? When you consider about 66 percent of high school graduates pursue higher education, that represents a sizable gap.

According to NerdWallet, high school graduates missed out on as much as $2.7 billion in free federal grant money in the past academic year because of incomplete or unsubmitted FAFSA forms. Wisconsin alone left over $42 million on the table with 47 percent of students not completing the FAFSA. 

Why are these completion numbers so low? The problem is that the majority of students don’t think they’re eligible, or they think that the FAFSA is only for low-income families. This could not be further from the truth.

FAFSA is the form that is used to determine how much money a family could be expected to contribute to a child’s higher education costs or Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and subsequently, how much aid you can expect to receive. Most colleges and states require it for students to be considered for any type of financial aid package, which could include college, state and federal aid in the form of grants, loans, work-study funds and school scholarships. Many private scholarship organizations also require a copy of the FAFSA.

The overall low completion rate certainly isn’t lost on the U.S. Department of Education (ED), which has recently increased its outreach to help improve these numbers, sending outreach coordinators to school districts where completion rates are low and making changes to help simplify the FAFSA form and increase completion rates.

This year, two major changes were made. First, the FAFSA form was made available on October 1 (rather than January 1 like it has been in past years). The earlier submission date is a permanent change, enabling students to complete and submit a FAFSA as early as October 1 every year. 

Second, the updated form is shorter and uses tax information from the prior year. So, students entering college in the fall of 2017 would use their parents' 2015 tax returns. Prior to this change, students had to use tax returns from the current year, which meant waiting until their parents filed or estimating the information and going back later to update it.

It will be awhile before we know how these changes affect the overall completion rate, but so far the numbers seem promising. FAFSA completion this October was up by six percent for the first two weeks of filing, compared to the first two weeks of filing the previous year.

In Wisconsin, students thinking about going to college in the fall can benefit from College Goal Wisconsin (CGW), a series of workshops held at 33 locations around the state where students and their families receive free professional help completing the FAFSA.

Upcoming dates for College Goal Wisconsin events are:

— Wed., Jan. 18, 2017 (Baraboo, Beloit, Green Bay, Milwaukee, New Richmond)
— Sat., Jan. 21, 2017 (Fond du Lac, Madison, Milwaukee)
— Wed., Jan. 25, 2017 (Milwaukee, Rice Lake)
— Sat., Jan. 28, 2017 (Appleton, DeForest, Eau Claire, Janesville, Milwaukee, Platteville, Wausau)

Visit CollegeGoalWI to find a location nearest you as well as a list of everything you need to bring in order to complete your 2017-18 FAFSA.