College-bound students: If you haven't already submitted your financial aid application for 2017-18, it's time to get a move on.
"For families that are interested in financial aid, earlier is always better," said Peter Farrell, managing director and senior principal for enrollment services at Royall & Company.
Under changes this year, students have been able to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid since Oct. 1. In previous years, they had to wait another three months, until Jan. 1. They can also use financial data from their most recent tax return. (That's the one you filed in April, not the one you're already thinking about preparing for next spring.)
Plenty of families have taken advantage of that early access. Applications in the first 2½ weeks of this year's FAFSA season were up 4 percent from the same time period last season, according to the Department of Education. By Nov. 22 this year — more than a month before students could even file the FAFSA last year — colleges had already received FAFSA filings equivalent to an average 32 percent of the previous academic year's total, according to a Royall analysis of 171 colleges.
"Get it in as soon as possible," said David Levy, editor of Edvisors.com.
The upshot: You could receive more money. Students who file the FAFSA in the first three months of availability have historically received more than double the grant funding — that is, money that does not have to be repaid — as those who file later, according to a 2015 study from Edvisors.com.
Procrastinators run the risk of missing out on college and state aid, which may be doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, Levy said. More than a dozen states moved up their start dates this year to reflect early FAFSA availability — Alaska, Illinois and Kentucky, for example, are among those that have been taking applications since Oct. 1.
Others simply have early deadlines. Connecticut, for example, has a Feb. 15 cutoff on FAFSA submissions for its Roberta B. Willis need- and merit-based scholarships, which offer up to $5,250 to residents attending an in-state college.
Filing early may also mean you have a college aid offer in hand earlier, giving you more time to compare offers and gauge affordability.
In the Royall analysis, more than half of colleges said they expect to provide applicants with need-based offers two to eight weeks earlier than last year. Colleges hoping to grow their enrollment or compete for students are more likely to be early with such offers, said Farrell.
"The more selective schools are kind of sitting back, waiting and seeing," he said.