Big Changes Coming to Way Students File for Financial Aid

If you are planning to attend college this fall, you should be in the midst of filling out your FAFSA – or Free Application for Financial Aid.  In fact, you probably should be done by now.

"Financial aid applications tend to be due early winter, so the advice is to get your FAFSA filled out by February 15th,” says Kim Nauer, Research Director at the Center for NYC Affairs and the author of “FAFSA: The How to Guide for Students and the Adults Who Help Them.”

Problem is, in order to complete it, you need to have information from your 2015 taxes. You can use an estimate to get a jumpstart, but that just adds another step.

 "Families who do an estimated FAFSA today actually come back to update to the 2015 tax information once they have that available,” says Michael Turner of NYS Higher Education Services Corp.

But that’s about to change. Starting this fall, FAFSA filing season will open earlier. Students going to college in 2017 will be able to complete their application as early as this October. 

And rather than base it on their 2016 tax data, which obviously won’t be ready, they’ll be able to use what’s being called prior-prior year, meaning tax data from 2015 – which will be downloaded using the IRS data retrieval tool.

"It should be as easy as going online, clicking a few buttons, saying bring down my tax data that's already there - bloop - and it will fill out the FAFSA just like that," Nauer says. 

 Greg Darnieder with the US Department of Education says the change will not only lighten the load for families but colleges and universities as well.

 "Filing your FAFSA is just the beginning of the financial aid process,” Darnieder says. “Higher ed institutions have to do what we call verification."

In other words, make sure the information provided by the student is true. By uploading data directly from the IRS, schools will not have to do nearly as much double-checking.

While the new FAFSA filing calendar is meant to make life easier, there is a concern that colleges will also move up their financial aid deadline, doubling the amount of work parents and students need to do in the fall.

"College applications and financial aid could end up falling right at the exact same time and for any parent - the thought of doing them both at the same time is really hard,” Nauer says.

But she says getting it all done earlier will give students more time to weigh their financial aid offers and make an informed decision that hopefully won’t involve too much student loan debt.

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