Early FAFSA aims to help families
By Joy Rockwell, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, and Neil Leibundguth, University of St. Thomas
As the school year begins, some changes have occurred that will impact the students we work with — and your ability to assist them. Just one year ago, President Obama made an executive action to allow students to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) earlier.
Instead of filing a FAFSA beginning January 1 using estimated (or completed) financial information from the year prior, students and families will be able to apply for financial aid starting October 1, 2016 for the 2017-2018 school year. Because of this earlier timeframe, students will also use 2015 tax information to complete their 2017-2018 FAFSA (view handout of what's changing). Applicants will still use to-date information regarding personal and family information, such as number of family members, number in college and parental marital status. This timing adjustment better aligns the admissions and financial aid processes, and gives students and their parents more time to make informed decisions about attending college.
For this year, the new process is called “Early FAFSA.” However, as the new timing structure will be set for all subsequent years and as students and families grow accustomed to this, it will simply be “FAFSA” after this first year.
The change to Early FAFSA is not the first in recent years. The online application has become far easier for families to complete by incorporating skip-logic to enable students and parents to bypass questions that don’t apply to them and giving them the opportunity to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool which improves the speed and accuracy in which a FAFSA is filled out.
For families, this change has significant benefits. Allowing families to apply for financial aid a full three months earlier than before using tax data that has already been filed will enable students to take more time in making their college decision — and be more informed about what the actual costs will be to attend the school of their choice.
This does not mean that colleges and universities will be able to provide full financial aid award letters to students any earlier. Many schools do not set their costs for the upcoming year until the spring, and the federal and state governments don’t give colleges information on Pell and State Grant tables until January or February. However, it will be important to monitor any timeline and priority deadlines changes some schools may make in the wake of Early FAFSA.
There may be instances when a change in employment or marital status occurred in the current or prior year, but not the year in which the taxes were used for filing the FAFSA. In such circumstances, families should work individually with schools to explain their special financial circumstances.
Overall, this change may in some ways end up feeling like a more significant change within higher education. For families, the move to using earlier tax return information should be a welcome development. We are excited to provide students and their families the opportunity to better educate themselves and give themselves the critical information they need to make the best college decision.
Joy and Neil led discussion on the early FAFSA changes at a breakout session during MACAC’s spring tri-state meeting.