It's never too early to start thinking about student loans; student loan debt reached $1.4 trillion in 2017, and with no decline in sight, it's important for students and parents alike to be as proactive as they can about finding financial aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more informally known as FAFSA, is crucial to determining your eligibility for financial aid. Your FAFSA application factors in not only to what federal aid you could receive for your education, but state aid and university aid as well.

Federally, you may be eligible for grants - such as the Federal Pell Grant, which can be as much as $6,095 for students in the 2018-19 award year - and loans. These loans include the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program, where loans are owed to the U.S. Department of Education, and the Federal Perkins Loan Program, where the loans are owed to the school. The FAFSA could also determine your eligibility for the Federal Work-Study Program, which provides part-time employment for students.

If you are in great need of financial aid for school, submitting your FAFSA in a timely fashion is extremely important. Those who aren't in as dire need are still encouraged to submit a form, as they could potentially be eligible for more aid than they realize.

When Are the FAFSA Deadlines?

The 2018-2019 FAFSA is due on June 30, 2019, which gives applicants a large windows of time to apply for student loans. This is the federal due date, which is different from state deadlines.

You'll need to submit a FAFSA form for every year you're at college for undergraduate or graduate studies, so being aware of FAFSA deadlines will be a requirement for at least 4 years.

The other thing to be aware of if this is your first time applying for FAFSA is that there are, in fact, multiple deadlines for you to be aware of depending on the types of aid you are going for. Knowing the different deadlines and getting your form in on time for all of them could be the difference in literally thousands of dollars' worth of student aid.

FAFSA Deadline: Federal

The biggest constant for FAFSA due dates is the federal one. The application window for 2018-19 began on October 1, 2017, and the deadline is June 30, 2019. That pattern continues as expected, from October 1, 2018 to June 30, 2020, students and parents can apply for federal aid for the 2019-20 school year.

It's a lengthy window of time, but the rule of thumb is the sooner, the better. The earlier the application is processed, the more money is available.

FAFSA Deadline: State

Whereas the federal deadline is concrete and consistent, those seeking state aid may have to do a little more research to find out the due date. The deadline for being eligible for state-specific aid varies from state-to-state.

State deadlines may be even more important to know than the federal one, because it can be anywhere from several months to over a year before the federal deadline. For the 2018-19 school year, for example, Maryland and Maine's state deadlines were May 1, 2018. Maryland and Michigan's were due on March 1, 2018, while Delaware's was April 15. Minnesota, meanwhile, required it within 30 days of the window opening.

Some states have multiple deadlines depending on the type of aid or type of school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, California's deadline for most of its state financial aid was March 2, 2018, but additional community college grants have a due date of Sept. 2 of the same year. New Jersey's deadline for much of its aid is Sept. 15, 2018. But those looking to receive aid via the state's Tuition Aid Grant needed to submit by April 15.

Other states don't have any actual dates for deadlines, instead just saying to submit as soon as possible. For 2018-19, that included Illinois, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Washington. In these instances, financial aid is given out until the yearly funds have been depleted.

State deadlines for the 2019-2020 school year have not yet been announced.

FAFSA Deadline: College

The FAFSA also helps colleges determine how much they will offer you in financial aid. What colleges are you applying to? Look up each of their deadlines or contact the financial aid offices. School deadlines tend to be several months earlier in the year than the federal deadline, but the specific date will vary depending on the school.

When Should You Apply for FAFSA?

All this information makes it clear that the best move for those seeking financial aid is to fill out and submit your FAFSA as soon as you can, long before any due date. Should you qualify for aid, submitting your application earlier gives you a better chance of receiving it. After all, states and universities allot a finite amount of money toward student aid. The sooner you submit in an "as soon as possible state," the more money they'll have for students who qualify for aid.

Plus, getting the FAFSA done as soon as you possibly can eliminates the stress of having to balance several different deadlines. Just get ahead of all of them at once! The last thing a prospective student needs is even more difficulty paying for their education.

FAFSA Application

What actually goes into getting your FAFSA submitted? You can apply online and make things much easier, but first you need an FSA ID.

What Is an FSA ID?

An FSA ID is a unique username and password combination that allows you to log in to fafsa.gov, among other U.S. Department of Education websites. This is required both to sign your FAFSA or renew an existing one. Students unsurprisingly will need one to sign their FAFSA, but that student is seen as a dependent student, their parent or legal guardian needs their own FSA ID to sign it as well.

Not sure if you're a dependent student? It means you're not classified as an independent student. Independent students are any of the following:

  • 24 or older
  • Married
  • A veteran or member of the Armed Forces
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Orphan
  • A ward of the court
  • Emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk
  • Has legal dependents other than a spouse

If none of these apply, you are a dependent student.

What's Should I Know for the FAFSA?

The FAFSA requests quite a lot of information. In total, there are more than 100 questions on the 2018-19 FAFSA, though how many you have to answer will depend on if you're a dependent or independent student.

In addition to the expected questions (name, address, social security number, education) many of these relate back to taxes - especially for dependent students, as their parents' tax returns come into play.

It can be a lot, even for the most financially astute parent. Luckily, the Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education has a helpful sheet available on their website detailing not only the information that will be asked on the FAFSA, but which tax documents will have the specific tax information requested.

FAFSA Renewal

As you need to submit your FAFSA every year of school, you'll need to renew it. Thankfully, renewing is significantly quicker and easier than initially filling it out. As long as you and your parents have your FSA IDs, you can log back in and find that much of the application is now pre-filled with information from the previous year. Confirm that information is correct, and from there you'll need to complete the missing fields and make sure you're using up-to-date tax information.

Am I Eligible to Apply for FAFSA?

There are several basic elements of eligibility you'll need to meet to criteria, including:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid social security number
  • Demonstrate financial need
  • Prove qualification for college or career school education via a high school diploma, GED certificate, or completion of state-approved homeschooling
  • Maintain academic progress that meets the school's standard of satisfactory
  • Be accepted for enrollment or currently enrolled as a student with the intention of completing a degree or certificate program
  • Sign FAFSA statements certifying you are not in default on a federal loan, don't owe a refund on a federal grant, and will only use the granted student aid for educational purposes
  • Register with the Selective Service if you are male aged 18-25

There are occasional exceptions. Students with a green card, arrival departure record, battered immigrant status, or a T-visa. Similarly, those from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau, and Federated States of Micronesia are exempt from the social security number qualification. If these qualifications are maintained throughout your education, you will remain eligible.