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College-bound high school seniors are the most likely targets for nagging about completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. But the message is just as important for returning college students.

Students must submit the FAFSA to access federal financial aid – grants, scholarships, work-study and federal loans – as well as certain state and institutional aid each year they’re in school. Yet, returning college students aren’t achieving the same pace of completions as their freshman counterparts, colleges say.

The financial aid office at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, noticed “a significant lag” in returning students filing the paperwork compared with incoming students last year, according to Diane Todd Sprague, the office’s director.

If you’re in college and rely on financial aid to pay for it, you need to complete the FAFSA. Here are three reasons filling it out each year can help you pay for college:

1. You might receive more financial aid

Financial aid eligibility is adjusted year to year. If your family has experienced changes in financial status — maybe one of your parents has lost a job or a sibling has started college — you might be eligible for more aid.

When you file a FAFSA, you can use prior-prior year tax information, or 2016 information for the 2018-19 form. Prior-prior year information is used so students can receive an estimate of aid eligibility without waiting for tax season to apply. If your circumstances have changed significantly in the two years since a prior-prior tax filing, don’t wait to submit the FAFSA. Once your newest taxes are filed, you can go back and update your tax information.

2. You might get free money

Organizations that grant free college funding use the FAFSA to decide if you qualify. Pell Grants are a good example; you don’t have to pay them back the way you do student loans. But they’re first-come, first-served — so apply as soon as you can after the FAFSA is released Oct. 1 for your best shot at qualifying.

You might also need to file the FAFSA to qualify for scholarships through your college. “A lot of scholarship agreements now say that you have to file after the first year,” says Dennis Correll, associate dean for enrollment management at Penn State’s Pennsylvania College of Technology.

3. You might need a new federal student loan

When grants, scholarships, savings and work-study don’t meet the full costs of attending school, student loans can close the gap. If you took out a federal student loan last year, you’ll likely need another one this year. Completing the FAFSA is the only way to get federal loans, which offer more protections and typically lower interest rates than private student loans. It’s best to max out federal aid before turning to private student loans, which are obtained through banks and online lenders and don’t require the FAFSA.

How to file

Complete the FAFSA on the federal student aid website. If you filed last year, log in to the FAFSA website with your FSA ID and click the FAFSA Renewal button. You’ll be directed to a partially prefilled form and can provide new financial information.

You can complete an application until June 30 of the school year for which you’re filing — that’s June 30, 2019, for the 2018-19 school year. However, your school or state typically has much earlier deadlines. Find your state deadline on the FAFSA website.

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