People starting college in the fall of 2017 probably haven't decided where they're going to school, but it's almost time to start applying for financial aid. In the past, students and their families could turn in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting Jan. 1 of the year they'll need the aid, but that date has been moved up.
It's coming up quickly, too. For the 2017-18 academic year, people can turn in the FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016. That's in less than 3 months away.
Why So Early?
Before we get into the specifics of this change, it's important to point out why you'd want to turn in the FAFSA so early. Figuring out how you're paying for college is one of those "the sooner, the better" kind of things. Though the application has "federal" in the name, states and schools also use the FAFSA to dole out financial aid, and every state and school has different ways of doing that. Some distribute aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so the longer you wait to turn in your FAFSA, the lower your chances of receiving assistance.
With that sort of pressure, you'd think college-bound people (or their parents) would greet the stroke of midnight with a toast of "Happy New Year! But first, FAFSA." It doesn't tend to happen that way, for a few reasons. First, a lot of people don't realize how important FAFSA is, or they assume they won't qualify for aid, so they don't bother with the paperwork. In addition to the common mistakes of not knowing deadlines or underestimating the importance of the FAFSA, people put it off because they think they won't have all the information they need to complete it until after they've filed their taxes.
For example: The FAFSA for the 2016-17 school year required applicants to enter their income information from the 2015 tax year. The deadline for submitting your 2015 income tax return was April 18, 2016. At that point, the FAFSA deadline in many states had passed, or states had already awarded all available aid. How could an application that requires 2015 tax information come due before your 2015 taxes, you ask? You can estimate your financial information on the FAFSA, allowing you to turn in the application before you file your taxes, which is something a lot of people may not realize.
Yes, it's confusing, which brings us to the new policies coming in a few months.
For the 2017-18 academic year, students and their families will use their financial information from the 2015 tax year to fill out the FAFSA. The idea is that this will make it easier to fill out the form earlier. It also allows more people to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval tool. It transfers your tax information to the FAFSA, but because many people have traditionally filled out the FAFSA before completing their taxes, that tool hasn't been as helpful as it could be.
"This will simplify the FAFSA, cutting about a page of questions from the form," according to Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and vice president of strategy at Cappex, an online platform for researching colleges and scholarships.
"Also, any data element that is transferred unmodified from the IRS will not be subject to verification. This is especially important for low-income students, who often have difficulty completing verification," he noted.
What You Need to Know Before October
The Education Department recommends filling out the FAFSA online, but you can also fill out a PDF version (you submit that through the mail) or request a paper form be sent to you. You also need a federal student aid ID (FSA ID) to sign your FAFSA, and it can take up to three days after registering for your FSA ID before you can use it to sign your application.
You still don't need to have filed your taxes in order to fill out the FAFSA (though it's easier that way, with the IRS Data Retrieval tool), and you also don't have to know where you're going to school. You can list a college on your FAFSA, if you want them to receive your FAFSA, even if you haven't yet decided if you're applying there. Keep in mind you have to fill out the FAFSA every year you're applying for aid, as well, so for people who have gone through this process before, now you can start it earlier.
"The switch to prior-prior year also increases the amount of time available to apply for financial aid, from 18 months to 21 months," Kantrowitz said.
Changes to how people apply for federal student aid hardly solves the burden of rising education costs and the ever-growing student loan debt in the U.S., but they simplify a process that many people find intimidating.
Of course, paying for college goes beyond this single form. Figuring out how much you can afford to spend (and borrow) to get a degree can be really tricky, but it's important that students and their families consider the future cost of these decisions. Student loans have a significant impact on borrowers' credit scores and falling behind on loan payments can seriously damage your financial stability.
Adam Levin is co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit, and is the author of SWIPED: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves, a practical, lively book that is essential to surviving the ever-changing world of online security.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.