FAFSA. It’s a dreaded acronym in the often nerve-wracking college application process, and for many students the single most important form they fill out in the pursuit of a higher education. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines how much assistance students get from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of grants, work-study funds and low-interest loans, which can help pay for not only tuition, but also housing costs, textbooks and even supplies like a new computer. States and many colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to determine how much aid to give students from their own funds.
This year, the Department of Education is trying to make the process of applying for federal aid easier and more closely aligned with the timeline for the rest of the college application process. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Application Opens Earlier
For the first time, students will be able to submit the FAFSA starting Oct. 1, three months earlier than in previous years. The longer application window will likely alleviate some of the stress for families, giving them more time to apply for financial aid and more time to consider their options.
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2. Use 2015 Tax Information
In previous years, students and parents sometimes had to estimate their tax information to complete the FAFSA form and then update the information after filing taxes. This year, applicants can use their 2015 income and tax information to complete the form. Families can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import tax information directly into the FAFSA form.
Current college students who already used their 2015 income and tax information to apply for financial aid last year still need to reapply. The information does not automatically carry over.
3. Be Mindful of Deadlines
The federal deadline to submit an application for financial aid is still June 30, but states and schools have their own deadlines and many are before the federal cut-off. The Department of Education expects most state and school deadlines will stay the same as last year, but applicants can check on the FAFSA website and on school websites. In Florida, the FAFSA form must be processed by May 15, 2017.
A few states that offer first-come, first-served financial aid, like Illinois, Texas and the Carolinas, will start doling out aid sooner, so in these states it may be in a student’s best interest to apply as soon as possible after October 1.
4. Changes Could Mean Earlier College Decisions
Because students can apply for federal aid sooner, some colleges and universities will be able to let students know about financial aid and scholarships earlier than in previous years.
“The earlier colleges get your financial aid information, the earlier they are able to notify students about awards,” explained Troy Miller, the Associate Director for Research and Policy at the Florida College Access Network, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization. “Colleges will be able to notify students whether or not they’ve been admitted and what their award is, and hopefully students will have more time to decide.”
5. Still Confused?
The Department of Education has a Q&A about the changes on their website and the Federal Student Aid office can be reached at 1-800-433-3243. Miller also recommends students contact the college adviser at their high school for help applying for financial aid. Financial aid offices at colleges and universities are often a good source of information and guidance as well.