Colleges are bracing for another year of high demand for financial aid - and that means students need to get their applications in as quickly as possible.
Federal student loans remain plentiful, but other types of aid from states and colleges are more limited. By missing one of the many deadlines, students could receive fewer sought-after grants and scholarships that don't have to be repaid, and end up having to apply for loans that do.
"It will be another competitive year," says Sarah Bauder, director of financial aid for the University of Maryland, College Park. Aid applications so far at the state university are up 12 percent over last year, while federal funding for work-study and certain education grants has been slashed, Bauder says.
Blame the continued weak economy for the stiff competition for aid. Unemployment remains high. Families that have burned through cash reserves now are applying for aid for the first time, aid officials say.
In addition, a bumper crop of high school seniors and more people returning to school for advanced degrees will add to the aid demand, says Patricia Nash Christel, a spokeswoman for student loan giant Sallie Mae.
The first step to getting aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at fafsa.ed.gov. It not only will determine your federal aid, but states and colleges also use the FAFSA to award their money.
The earliest you can submit a FAFSA is Jan. 1. States and schools set their own deadlines for when the FAFSA must be submitted.
The state of Maryland's deadline is March 1. Gov. Martin O'Malley has set aside nearly $110 million in his proposed budget for scholarships and grants this year, which could help more than 58,000 students, says Christopher Falkenhagen, director of communications for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Schools often set priority deadlines so that applications submitted by that date will be the first batch that aid officers look at when making their awards. Goucher's deadline, for instance, was Feb. 1. The Towson college typically awards $22,000 to the neediest of students, about half the cost of attending the college for a year. In years past, the college has been able to offer that amount of aid even to students submitting the FAFSA after the college's deadline, says Sharon Hassan, director of financial aid.
But this year, with aid applications more than double those of a year ago, Goucher might be forced to be less generous with latecomers, Hassan says.
Deadlines can differ widely, so check your school's Web site. Aid applications to the Johns Hopkins University, for example, are due March 1. The deadline for the University of Maryland, College Park was Monday, although students have until the end of the week, partly because of the Presidents Day holiday, Bauder says.
Parents often want to file their tax returns before filling out the FAFSA. While having an up-to-date tax return makes filling out the application easier, it's better to get the application in by the deadline using last year's tax return and then correcting the information later, says Christel.
Be aware, too, that a school might have more than one deadline, warns Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke." Besides the FAFSA, many schools are creating their own aid forms or requiring families to submit additional documents to make sure the aid is going to students in need, he says.
What if you blow all the deadlines? You can still qualify for federal Stafford student loans by submitting the FAFSA any time during the academic year.