The big FAFSA changes this year

Families who’ve been through the admissions and financial aid application processes with older kids probably remember the order of operations. No matter which colleges you applied to or when you submitted your applications, the earliest you could submit your FAFSA (the starting point to apply for all need-based aid for college) was January 1 of the student’s senior year. But that meant many students were submitting college applications the prior October-December with no sense of whether or not they were eligible for financial aid. The FAFSA also required that you use tax data from the current year. So unless you really had your tax act together enough to get them done months ahead of time, your FAFSA almost certainly wouldn’t be completed in January. And given that much of need-based financial aid is available on a first come, first served basis, the January 1 filing date created a lot of stress and just wasn’t very efficient.

This year, the FAFSA folks have made two significant changes.

1. The FAFSA can now be submitted as early as October 1, rather than the following January. So if you’re applying to college this fall, you may submit your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016.

2. For the 2017-18 academic year, families may use information from the 2015 tax year to complete the FAFSA. So instead of frantically completing your taxes next year and hoping to transfer that information to your FAFSA in time, you can now not only use last year’s tax returns, but you’ll also be able to use the IRS’s data retrieval tool, which allows you to transfer the necessary information into your FAFSA.

Those are mostly good changes. Now here’s what won’t change.

While virtually every college requires the FAFSA from applicants seeking aid, each individual school decides when that FAFSA is due (October 1, 2016 isn’t a deadline, it’s just the earliest that a FAFSA can be submitted), and schools may require other paperwork in addition to the FAFSA. The only way to make sure you’re submitting the right forms at the right times is to check the financial aid sections of each of your chosen colleges’ websites.

Counselors may be aware that there are several unanswered questions about these changes, like how they will affect Pell grants, what will happen with the Profile form, how this will affect counselors’ advising cycles now that you have to cover financial aid much earlier, etc. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what families need to know rather than raise questions they aren’t empowered to influence.

So, college applicants (and their parents), visit the websites of the colleges that interest you. Check all the requirements and deadlines for both a complete application for admission and for financial aid. Decide who will be responsible for what (kids should fill out their own applications, but it’s common and accepted that parents often handle the financial aid paperwork).  That way, you won’t be missing anything, and you’ll give yourself a good start towards getting the aid you need to help pay for college.