Holiday shopping dominates the headlines and airwaves this time of year, but it's also when teenagers and young adults are deep into thinking about one of the most important financial decisions of their lives: whether and where to go to college.
And the primary tool in that decision is the document that must be filled out before each new academic year: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
The application is updated every year, with the newest form becoming available around Oct. 1 in both printed form (10 pages including instructions) and on the government's financial aid website — studentaid.gov. It can be filled out in English or Spanish.
About a week or two after completing a FAFSA, a student will get an estimate of his or her eligibility for federal aid. That information will go to the schools the student designates, which will then set the stage for the type and amount of aid a school will offer the student.
And the rule of thumb and top advice for filling it out is to do it as soon as possible.
"The earlier that they apply, that means we can communicate with them about their application status or if there's anything incomplete," said Brittany Tweed, financial aid chief at Metro State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
College enrollment has been declining in the U.S. for several years and will come under more pressure by the middle part of the decade due to the steep decline in U.S. births during the 2008-09 recession. As a result, federal officials and college leaders are trying to simplify the aid process and simply let more people know that aid is available.
Last year, an estimated 813,000 students were eligible for the Pell Grant — the largest federal grant program offered to undergraduates — but didn't submit a FAFSA, according to National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit organization of scholarship funds.
This year, the FAFSA form has taken out some questions, such as those about selective service registration and drug convictions, that may have deterred some people from considering higher education. "That's just one more barrier that a student could read about and say, 'This isn't for me,'" said Meghan Flores, state grant and financial aid manager at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
Bigger changes to simplify the process are ahead. Here's a rundown on the financial aid application process for people aiming to be in college in the 2022-23 academic year beginning July 1.