If you’re planning on college next fall and need help paying, it’s time to apply for financial aid.
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA, used to be a wintertime tradition for families sending children off to college.
But under President Barack Obama’s executive order, the U.S. Department of Education has moved up the date for families to submit information for the FAFSA, used by federal and state governments and many colleges and universities in developing their financial aid packages.
The application window opened Oct. 1 for the 2017-18 academic year. In previous years, families had to wait until Jan. 1 to file for financial aid.
The date change – which aligns more closely to most institutions’ admissions schedules – is coupled with another key modification to the financial aid application process: Families can now use earlier income and tax information in filling out the form.
So instead of requiring families to report 2016 income and tax numbers, this year’s FAFSA will ask for 2015 information. The change eliminates the need for families to estimate their tax information, since their previous year’s tax returns will already have been completed and filed. Families will be able to use the IRS data retrieval tool to import their tax information into the FAFSA application.
Taken together, the two changes should give families more time to complete the FAFSA accurately and to weigh competing financial aid award letters before committing to enroll at a college or university and going into debt to do it.
“They’re making really important decisions with huge financial implications,” said Megan Covel, vice president of policy and federal regulations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Under the Jan. 1 filing start date, colleges and universities traditionally sent award letters to accepted students in March and early April, giving families just a few weeks to mull the offers. Most institutions require a deposit for fall enrollmment by May 1.
It’s unclear yet whether institutions will begin sending out their aid award letters earlier, but that’s the hope.
“For a lot of schools that’s still up in the air in this transition year,” said Covel. “This could take a couple years to shake out, because it’s a really big change.”
Regardless of whether colleges and universities immediately change their timelines, financial planners and college financial aid administrators advise getting the FAFSA completed as soon as possible.
Jerry Inglet, director of the College Financial Literacy Initiative at M & T Bank, said families who delay too long risk missing out on both need-based financial aid from government and merit aid that’s offered by the institutions.
“Both of these pots of money are finite. They’re not unlimited,” said Inglet, a former higher education administrator who now works with families trying to pay for college.