Grants and awards available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid dry up quicker each year.
To ensure an application is considered, financial aid advisers encourage college and college-bound students to fill out a FAFSA form as soon as possible.
"We encourage students to apply between Jan. 1 and March 1," said Kitty McCarthy, associate vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Northern Illinois University. "Applying by March 1 gives students the opportunity to be considered for as much funding as possible."
Even if a student or family don't think they'll qualify for aid, McCarthy strongly encourages everyone to at least apply. Those who do qualify can capture grants from the state's Monetary Award Program and Pell Grants, or federal, state and institutional funding.
"A lot of times families are surprised that they're eligible," she said.
Students who already receive FAFSA funding should reapply annually to qualify again. At NIU, close to 75 percent of undergraduate students will qualify for some sort of assistance through FAFSA, McCarthy said.
Students should bring 2011 tax forms and basic information such as a Social Security number while filling out FAFSA forms, McCarthy said.
Dennis Waymire, a school counselor at DeKalb High School, said it's important for high school students to work with their families and understand how to read their 2011 tax forms. Another key is making sure tax returns are filled out correctly.
Filling out a FAFSA form might be a game changer for students who plan to attend a two-year school but are ready for a four-year college, Waymire said.
"For one, knowing how much federal assistance you could get could determine what school you go to," he said. "You might be able to afford your dream school."
During the 2010-2011 academic year at NIU, more than 21,000 students shared $2.1 million in financial aid, according to information provided by Brian Hemphill, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at NIU. In Illinois, nearly 800,000 students filed for FAFSA awards from the U.S. Department of Education.
Awards are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Jane Jordan, associate director in the Student Financial Aid Office at NIU, said students used to be able to file for MAP grants through July, but the grants have been quickly soaked up when the economy took a downturn. Last year, MAP funds ran out in the third week of March.
She sees a few avoidable errors that crop up regularly that may disqualify a person or delay the process.
Some parents report only their adjusted growth income and fail to include earnings from work, sometimes out of fear it might look like they make more than they actually do, Jordan said.
"That can actually negatively impact the reward," she said. "If they ask the question, answer the question. It's not going to hurt you."
Since many people don't have their tax returns completed by March, Jordan said it's OK to estimate tax return information because students can save their FAFSA and correct the information later.
This year, the filing process is streamlined because the IRS is allowing people to sign up for automatic data retrieval. Jordan said families who don't sign up for the service may be asked to retrieve a paper copy of tax information from the IRS, which can slow the process.
"We couldn't encourage families strongly enough to do that," Jordan said.
Tips for filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form
• The FAFSA is available online at www.fafsa.gov.
• Fill out a FAFSA before March 1 to maximize opportunities for monetary awards.
• Don’t report a secondary residence as a primary residence.
• Don’t include cents when reporting incomes. That could turn $700.50 into $70,050, and may negatively affect monetary awards.
• Don’t record a parent’s income in the student section of the FAFSA.
• When reporting the number of college students in your family, make sure to include the person whose FAFSA is being completed.
• Answer all of the questions on the form. Not reporting an income could negatively affect the money granted.
Source: Jane Jordan, associate director in the Student Financial Aid Office at Northern Illinois University