High school seniors who are college-bound may still be visiting schools and studying for their SATs, but they need to add one more task to their fall to-do list: Fill out the FAFSA.
In previous years, families couldn’t fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, which is required for federal loans and grants, until January 1. But new rules have pushed up that date, making the forms available a full three months earlier, on October 1.
The shift is good news for most families, since they’ll have a better picture of what their aid package will look like when they’re selecting colleges, which should help them make a more informed decision about which schools they can actually afford. “It’s an acknowledgment by the government and the broader higher education industry that college financial aid is a critical part of deciding which schools to apply to and which schools to attend,” says Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the nonprofit college search tool College Abacus and vice president for innovation at ECMC.
The FAFSA process can be overwhelming for those who’ve never gone through it, and the changes mean that even upperclassmen (financial aid is awarded annually, so college students must fill out the forms every year) may have questions this year.
Here are five things you need to know about the new FAFSA.
1. Getting your data in early is key. Some financial aid is given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so the sooner you get your FAFSA in, the better your shot at getting a larger financial aid package. If a lot of families take advantage of the new open date, funds could be depleted earlier than usual. Jumpstart the process by setting up your Federal Student Aid ID account now at www.fafsa.gov.
Additionally, after submitting your form, you’ll know whether you’re eligible for Pell Grants and you’ll find out your estimated family contribution. (Expect to get that info within three to five days after filing their FAFSA electronically.) Plug that information into a college’s net price calculator or a site like College Abacus to get a better sense of what various colleges will cost before you even visit or apply.
“Filing your FAFSA early can only help you make more informed decisions about where to go to college as well as how to pay for it,” says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success.
That’s important, since 37 percent of students receive grants and scholarships that bring down the average cost of tuition by more than half the published price, according to the College Board.
2. You’ll be using tax return data from two years ago. Instead of using taxes from the year immediately preceding the school year, this year the FAFSA will use “prior-prior year” data. That means that for the 2017-2018 school year, you’ll use your 2015 tax returns. That’s good news, since you won’t have to wait for any tax documents in order to complete the return.
If your income has gone down significantly over the past two years due to extenuating circumstances like a job loss or medical condition, explain the situation to the admissions department. “Financial aid administrators are reasonable creatures,” says Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, a college and scholarships search site. “They will do their best to offer you a package that reflect your family’s ability to pay.”
Most families will be able to directly import data from their IRS tax returns through the FAFSA’s online filing tool. That will make it less likely that you’ll make a mistake and it should reduce the number of applications flagged for “verification,” which can hold up your award.
3. Plan on revising your application as you apply to schools. You’ll need to list at least once school on your FAFSA in order to file it, but if you haven’t yet narrowed down the rest of your options, you can amend it later. If you’re thinking of applying to a state school, list that college first, since some states base their aid on the order of listed schools.
To add other schools, you can simply log in to your FAFSA account later and list any additional schools to which you’ve applied, so that they can access the data to create an accurate aid package.
4. Focus on merit aid as well. Since the FAFSA process will be completed so much earlier in the year, you may have more time to go after merit aid to further reduce your costs. In addition to scholarships offered by the college, look for local academic scholarships offered by your school or by community organizations. Many schools require a FAFSA for merit aid eligibility, so you should fill it out even if you’re sure you won’t receive a need-based package. “Not filling it out is a huge mistake,” says Dan Riseman, a college test-prep tutor and founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Westchester County, New York. “Especially now that it’s easier than ever.”
5. School deadlines may have changed as well. While there was no federal requirement that schools change their aid or application deadlines in response to the shift in FAFSA dates, about a fifth of schools surveyed by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said that it would impact their admissions calendar. Especially if you’re a returning student, be sure to check in with your admissions office to make sure there haven’t been changes to the deadlines for applications or scholarships.
About 400 private schools also require students to fill out the CSS profile, which they use to determine their own, non-federal aid distribution. The forms for that application also become available on October 1.
Given that they’ll have more lead time to figure out financial aid packages, some schools may also be sending out award letters to families earlier in the year. If you receive multiple aid offers, you can use them to get colleges to compete for you. Many schools will match a competitor’s offer.