At the beginning of each year, students and parents take an hour or so to fill out the lengthy, laborious FAFSA.
The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a yearly application which allows students to apply for funding from the federal government. This year, the form came out three months early and was crafted to be more intuitive and user-friendly.
Here are five things to know about FAFSA:
When to apply
The FAFSA not only gauges a student's eligibility for federal aid, but also for college-specific institutional aid. These programs are less likely to be available and will provide less aid the later they are filled out.
Melissa Pizzo, ASU dean of admission and financial aid, said ASU’s priority deadline is Jan. 1, although this early release allowed students to fill it out as early as Oct. 1.
"Aid is on a first-come, first-served basis and the earlier thestudents submit their FAFSA, the chances of them receiving aid is greater,” Pizzo said.
How to apply
The first step is to create a FSA I.D., or Federal Student Aid I.D. Students can create the I.D. on the Department of Education website.
Before students start the process itself, they should gather their Social Security number, driver's license number, 2015 tax record and a list of schools they plan on attending.
According to a FAFSA blog, students should fill out the 2017-18 FAFSA if they are attending college between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018; and the 2016-17 FAFSA if they are attending college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.
Completing the FAFSA
The FAFSA is broken up into several categories including: student demographic information, school selection, dependency status, parent demographics and financial information.
Each form online has prompts and tools, to guide the process along. This is why education officials encourage students to fill the FAFSA out online.
April Osborn, the executive director of the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, said that the form is easier than ever.
“We encourage students to fill it out online because of all the tasks and prompts on the form,” she said. “It is easier this year. They have taken somewhere around 30 questions out over the last few years, and they’ve developed a tool called the FAFSA retrieval tool.”
The FAFSA retrieval tool allows students to easily import their parents' tax data.
“When it comes to you parents' income, if you have your parent's Social Security number, the tax data will be automatically transferred,” Osborn said.
One of the sections that can cause confusion is the parent demographic section. The FAFSA provides graphic flow charts on its website to help students appropriately fill out their application.
Why should I apply?
FAFSA is a federal entitlement program, and Osborn said this is one of the main reasons FAFSA is an important form for students and parents to fill out.
“The citizens in our country have determined that college should be accessible to everyone," Osborn said. "For that reason, a goodly amount of our taxes are put in an account for the FAFSA. If an individual never fills out the FAFSA, they can never get the funds that were intended for them.”
FAFSA in the Future
Eduardo Samaniego, a constitutional law and education policy junior at Hampshire College, starred in the Department of Education’s FAFSA promotional video and works to help students fill it out each year.
He said the new application is easier than ever before.
"In years past, FAFSA has been very inaccessible; students have a hard time navigating the questions and collecting information in time, which is why the new changes are important," Samaniego said. "They allow more time for the students to fill it out, and there is less questions."
However, Samaniego said the Department of Education could do more to help with student problems.
"What they should do is open up a hotline, employing staff to be available to respond to questions from students and parents," he said. "The circumstances of every family are very different, and the answers they might have won't be found online."
He also said undocumented individuals may not be able to receive aid, even though their taxes contribute to the federal aid.
"Groups such as new immigrants have a hard time gathering their financial documents, and it is even more difficult for undocumented students," he said. "This, despite the fact that the great majority of undocumented students pay local, state and federal taxes."
Despite these problems, Samaniego still stresses the importance of filling out the FAFSA and works to help students sign up.
"It is important to remind students already enrolled in college that they have to fill out the FAFSA every year," he said. "Many forget or believe it is a one-time thing and end up facing more financial challenges."
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow @isaacwindeschef on Twitter.