The kickoff to college application season is here, which means college-bound high school seniors everywhere are starting to compile their academic records, research their top university picks and, like all big events in life, fill out mountains of paperwork. And this fall, they should be preparing to fill out another form as well: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
There are big changes happening:
- An earlier start date: In past years, the FAFSA season began in January, but for students planning to attend college in the 2017–2018 academic year, the FAFSA application will now officially be available starting October 1, 2016. This is a permanent change, and the FAFSA will continue to be available on that date every year moving forward.
- An easier approach to pulling tax info: Families will now be able to fill out the FAFSA using tax information from two years prior to the aid year they’re applying for, or what’s being called the prior-prior tax year. This means students applying for the 2017–2018 year will be able to use their parents’ tax information from 2015. It also means families will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool from the get-go to help fill in relevant tax information, which the federal government hopes will simplify the process overall.
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Even with these improvements, the whole financial aid process can be overwhelming and confusing, especially when practices change. So we consulted two financial aid experts for their tips on how best to navigate the timeline shift.
Create your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID ASAP
In 2015, FAFSA switched from using a four-digit PIN to the more secure FSA ID, which not only gives you access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems, but also serves as a legal, electronic signature for your aid application. The new ID does not require users to provide sensitive information (like a Social Security Number or date of birth) when signing in, providing better protection of personal information.
That said, you’d be well advised to create your FSA ID sooner rather than later.
Why? Well, some families in the past have reported challenges when trying to create their FSA ID, explains Mary Nucciarone, director of financial aid at the University of Notre Dame. Doing so earlier can help iron out any glitches you might encounter before you need to file. It’s also important that parents and students create their own IDs for their own exclusive use—and not on behalf of a family member. That way, you’re less likely to lose access to that information and get locked out of your account.
Then, when it is time to fill out the FAFSA, make sure you’re looking at the 2017–2018 school year, cautions Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since there can often be FAFSA forms from multiple years on the web, some families mistakenly fill out the wrong one, slowing down the financial aid process. So like with any document, read carefully.
Break Out a Spreadsheet to Track Deadlines
Because this is the first year with the October 1 FAFSA release date, many schools themselves may not have everything figured out yet. Nucciarone suggests reaching out to all of the schools you’re thinking of applying to and asking how their policies might be changing (or not) because of earlier availability of the FAFSA.
“Just because there is an availability of the application doesn’t equate to when it is due [for different states and schools],” she points out.
To help keep track of pertinent information for each school, Nucciarone recommends creating a spreadsheet that lists relevant application deadlines, when you can expect to hear back about admissions and financial aid and if there’s any other financial information you need to submit. After all, just because you’re using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to populate your FAFSA doesn’t mean the verification process goes away. Some schools may still request additional documentation to ensure all of your submitted financial information is accurate. (But the hope is that verification will be reduced, adds Feldman.)
Also, remember that other financial information such as savings and checking account balances and additional assets should still be listed as of the date the FAFSA is filed.
Apply for College and Financial Aid Together
Because different colleges and states have varying financial aid deadlines, some families might be tempted to procrastinate turning in their FAFSA—even more so with the earlier October 1 start date. However, the “early bird gets the worm” strategy can apply here in that much of available grant money is awarded to students on a first-come first-served basis. And since federal and state government grants are determined by the FAFSA, it won’t benefit you to wait on filing your information, even if your school of choice isn’t moving up its individual financial aid timeline.
To help you make that mental shift, Feldman suggests coordinating college admissions and financial aid activities together. “As you’re thinking about what schools you want to apply to, you can do your financial aid work at the same time,” she says. “Think of it all as one process and get it done.”
There’s always a chance some schools won’t have their financial aid application ready in October, but go ahead and fill out the FAFSA anyway. The earlier you complete the application, the higher your chances of snagging more of that government cash. And since you’ll be using your 2015 tax returns anyway, there’s really no reason to delay.
Be aware, though, that even if you do get your financial aid information earlier, some numbers are still subject to change.
Warns Nucciarone: “[For colleges] to send out an early notification, it may mean that costs aren’t accurate, because many boards of trustees don’t set their costs until February or later if you’re in the public sector. We may or may not have information on what is going to be available from the Pell Grant program, so that may be an estimate. Many state grant programs are also in that same position.”
If Your Finances Change, Prepare to Appeal
The federal government requires that you use your prior-prior year tax returns going forward on the FAFSA, which again, means you’ll be using your 2015 returns to apply for aid toward the 2017–2018 school year. However, if your family has experienced a sudden change in financial situation in 2016—such as loss of income or illness—it’s not going to be reflected in that return.
If this is the case for your family, Nucciarone suggests you turn in your FAFSA with the 2015 tax return information, but also research the appeals processes for your prospective schools in advance so you’re prepared to file a request for reconsideration as soon as your financial aid packages do arrive.
Ask, “What’s the process by which I approach the financial aid office to ask for a re-evaluation?” Nucciarone advises.
Don't Jump the Gun
It’s important to stress again that some schools may not move up their financial aid timelines, at least not yet, and since financial aid information typically follows admissions decisions, you could still end up waiting until spring to receive a financial aid package.
Even if you do receive financial aid information earlier from one college, you should still wait to get answers from all of your chosen schools in order to thoroughly consider your options. After all, depending on your school’s admissions process, you likely don’t have to make a final decision and put down a deposit until May 1.
“Just because one school is ready to tell you about the financial aid earlier, it doesn’t necessarily mean that school is ultimately going to be the best deal or the best match,” says Feldman. “No school should really be asking you to commit before you've heard from all your other choice schools.”
Bottom line: Don’t just go with the earliest offer. The hope is that by starting the process now, aid information may be available earlier to give families a better picture of how much college might cost out-of-pocket. By getting a head start on your college and financial aid applications, you can better set yourself up to make the best college decision for your student and family’s future.