It is especially important to apply early for financial aid this year, college experts said, because many families have suffered economically during the coronavirus pandemic and may have to take extra steps to qualify for maximum help.

That means families should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the form known as FAFSA — as soon as they can. The form is a major gateway for financial help from the federal government as well as from many states and colleges. The FAFSA for the 2021-22 academic year is now available.

Completing the form early is always a good idea in order to meet varying deadlines for scholarships. But this year, college students or prospective applicants who have been affected by the pandemic may need to submit extra documents to their colleges.

Here’s why: The FAFSA for 2021-22 uses financial information from the 2019 tax year to determine a family’s expected out-of-pocket payment for college. But Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said many students and families had been affected by the health crisis this year, suffering job losses, catastrophic medical bills and even deaths. Tax returns filed this year won’t accurately reflect a student’s current financial picture, diminishing his or her eligibility for need-based grants and scholarships.

If that’s the case, students must still use the required, older tax information to complete the FAFSA, she said. But, she advised, they also should immediately contact college financial aid offices to request a review known in college aid lingo as “professional judgment.”

A professional judgment review involves submitting new information — like layoff notices, unemployment checks or medical bills — to give financial aid officials a more accurate picture of a student’s current finances. With that review, financial aid administrators have discretion to make adjustments to the FAFSA so that students can qualify for more aid.

The process can be time consuming. Most colleges won’t take formal action until after a student is admitted, but students should get in touch right after filing the FAFSA anyway, Cook said.

“You can often get a sense of what they’ll require,” she said, so you can begin compiling necessary documents.

The pandemic has also forced high schools to change their annual FAFSA completion events. Most help is happening virtually, and high school counselors may be stretched, said Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. Students may have to take more initiative to find help.

 

Ann Carrns writes for the New York Times.