Today’s high-school seniors, adult learners and returning college students should take the necessary steps now to be certain they have the money they need to pay for college next fall.

Starting Oct. 1, students, parents and caregivers can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the 2018-2019 academic year. While next fall may seem like a long time from now, filing the FAFSA early — especially ahead of the Dec. 1 priority deadline — is the first step to understanding resources for which students may qualify. Students who wait, or worse, choose not to file the FAFSA, risk leaving money on the table that could help make college an affordable reality.

Often, people think that they may not qualify for financial assistance to pay for college. Almost everyone is eligible for some type of financial aid, which includes grants, loans, scholarships and work-study opportunities. Many colleges use the FAFSA to award institutional scholarships available only to students who attend their specific school. Without filing the FAFSA, you may be eliminated from consideration for some of these funds.

Filing the FAFSA does not commit students to any particular school, nor does it commit them to any particular funding source. One thing is for certain — if you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you have a limited picture of the resources available to help you pay for college.

As part of our commitment to helping Montana students pursue higher education, Reach Higher Montana collaborates with high schools and colleges throughout Montana to provide hands-on, individual assistance completing the FAFSA. To find a FAFSA event near you, check out our College Goal calendar on our website, www.ReachHigherMontana.org.

If there’s not an event in your community, or if you are unable to attend an event, our knowledgeable advisors provide assistance completing the FAFSA at absolutely no cost to you. Financial aid professionals at your local college, or the college you hope to attend, are also helpful allies in your pursuit to fund your education. Finally, students, parents and caregivers can text FAFSAHelp to 41411 to receive free text messages with reminders and tips on FAFSA completion.

Completing the FAFSA is probably simpler and faster than you might think. The process has been significantly simplified, and since your FAFSA will be calculated using tax information from 2016, you can have your tax information imported into your FAFSA with the click of a button. Using this feature — the IRS Data Retrieval Tool — ensures that the correct information from your taxes is entered into the correct space on your FAFSA. This means fewer mistakes and a faster response on the resources for which you qualify. Make sure that you use fafsa.gov to complete your FAFSA, as other sites crop up each year that are not the federal site, and instead, charge fees for FAFSA completion.

Ready to get started? The first step to completing the FAFSA is for the student and at least one parent to obtain their Federal Student Aid Identification (FSA ID). This ID is used to verify identity and electronically sign the FAFSA, and it’s a good idea to have this step completed in advance of sitting down to do the FAFSA. Go to studentaid.gov/FSAID to get yours.

College can be an exciting time for both students and parents. As you continue your journey to the first day of college, know that nonprofit Reach Higher Montana is here to help you achieve your higher education goals.

Rhonda Safford is programs manager for Reach Higher Montana. 

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