Pandemic Increases Importance of Filing Early for Financial Aid

Requests for professional judgment reviews typically rise during a recession, and many colleges indicated in May that they were seeing a significant increase in requests, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The pandemic has also forced high schools to change their annual FAFSA completion events. Educators and student advocates hold the sessions to encourage students to complete and file the complex form, because those who do are much more likely to continue studies after high school. An analysis by NerdWallet found that $2.6 billion in federal need-based Pell grants went unclaimed in 2018 because eligible students failed to file the form.

This year, most help is happening virtually, and high school counselors may be stretched, said Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. “The resources available are diminished,” she said, so students may have to take more initiative to find help. They should start by contacting their high school’s counseling office, Ms. Streeter said.

Some states are gearing up to meet the challenge. Louisiana, which has made a successful push in recent years to increase the number of students filing the financial aid form, has already begun a FAFSA Now campaign to encourage high school seniors to seek help. Families can sign up for virtual appointments, or speak with a counselor by phone if they prefer, to get step-by-step help with the form.

Here are some questions and answers about the FAFSA:

Do I have to file the FAFSA online?

While you can still file a paper version of the FAFSA, student aid advocates recommend filing online. Filling out a digital version allows you to use the Internal Revenue Service’s data retrieval tool to transfer your tax information. The tool can in turn help minimize the risk of errors that can cause delays in processing aid packages.

I may not attend college next year. Can I skip the FAFSA?

It’s best to submit it anyway, if you think there’s a chance you’ll want to attend. “We strongly encourage students to file the FAFSA even if they’re uncertain of their college plans,” Ms. Streeter said. Even if students think they may take time off, or are unsure if they can afford college because of a job loss, “just file it,” she said, to keep your options open.

Have efforts to simplify the FAFSA paid off?

In recent years, improvements have been made to make the form easier to complete and file. The Department of Education now offers a version that can be completed on a mobile app. And in December, Congress passed legislation that eliminated some questions, and approved changes to make it easier to transfer financial information directly between the I.R.S. and the Education Department. But the transfer upgrades probably won’t occur for a few more years, partly because new security protocols have to be adopted to safeguard tax information, advocates say.