On Sunday, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid came online, ready to start accepting applications for the 2018-2019 school year. This is the second year the form has been available in October, three months earlier than previous years. Students will be able to submit the FAFSA for the 2018-2019 school year until June 30, 2019.

No one looks forward to filling out the FAFSA, but it’s the only way to get federal student aid for college. Students can get federal grants and loans and opt in to the work-study program that allows them to work certain on- and off-campus jobs for federally provided wages. Some states and schools even award scholarships and grants to students who fill out the FAFSA.

Therefore, the FAFSA is essential for students who need help affording college. Even those who think their family makes too much to qualify should apply.

But not every student submits a FAFSA, thereby missing out on federal student aid. Those students must rely on private aid, which can be much costlier in the long run.

Why Don’t Students Apply?

Only about 44 percent of high school graduates complete the FAFSA, and the numbers get worse in higher-poverty states.

Here are some basic concerns that can keep students from submitting a FAFSA application:

  • They think they won’t qualify for aid.
  • They think they didn’t do well enough in high school.
  • They think they’re too old.
  • They think it’s too complicated or difficult.

In reality, those reasons don’t hold up. Most students qualify for federal aid. In fact, any household with an income under $250,000 per year qualifies. That means that less than 5 percent of Americans wouldn’t qualify.

Federal student aid is not merit-based aid like many private scholarships and grants are.

There is no age cut-off for federal student aid. In fact, students over the age of 24 have access to more financial help, either as grants or as loans.

The Federal Student Aid office is constantly trying to make the FAFSA easier to fill out so more students will do so. In fact, this year the FSA implemented some changes to improve usability and security.

How Did the Federal Student Aid Office Change the FAFSA?

Thankfully, the Federal Student Aid office has been improving the process and has made some changes this year:

  • The FAFSA form is available earlier in the year: October 1.
  • The IRS Data Retrieval Tool is back online with new security measures, in response to the data breach earlier this year.
  • The FAFSA will ask for tax information from an earlier year. That means that students filling out the FAFSA for the 2018-2019 school year will put in tax information from 2015. The earlier year makes it more likely the filer’s tax information will be in the system and available via the Data Retrieval Tool. For those who file extensions and wait until fall to do their taxes, this will make filling out the FAFSA early easier.

Do You Have Any Advice About the FAFSA?

Yes! Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible. While the federal deadline for the 2018-2019 school year is June 30, 2019, states may have their own file-by deadlines, which may be as soon as possible if the state awards aid on a first come, first served basis.

If you don’t have all the information the form requires right now, make an educated guess. For example, if you haven’t applied to any schools yet, list the schools you plan on applying to. You can always go back and update your FAFSA. That means that if you end up applying for a school you didn’t list on your FAFSA, you can go back and add that school so they get your FAFSA information.

Finally, after you submit the FAFSA and receive your financial aid award letter, if you feel it isn’t enough, you can appeal. Especially if your family has experienced a change that isn’t reflected in the tax information you supplied on your FAFSA, you can appeal to explain your situation, and the Department of Education will reassess your financial need. Any change in income will affect your financial aid eligibility.