Few tools are more powerful for college financial aid than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. For students either heading to college or continuing their education after high school, the FAFSA provides a snapshot of a student’s financial need, giving financial aid counselors at schools the information they need to prepare the best financial aid plans for prospective students in the coming year.
In order to encourage more families and individuals to complete the FAFSA, changes to the FAFSA enrollment period will go into effect this Fall. Previously, and up through applications for the 2016-17 school year, FAFSA applications could be submitted from January 1 – June 30. For the 2017-18 school year, students and families can begin submitting their FAFSA applications online on October 1, 2016. This three-month expansion of the application window allows students and families an opportunity to get their financial plans for education after high school in place much earlier, providing less of a rush and reducing the stress of the FAFSA.
While October may seem far away during the heat of summer, taking the time now to consider these tips will get applicants prepared to take full advantage of the new dates this fall.
Don’t assume a student will not qualify for financial aid
Many families assume that their income is too high to be considered for any financial aid from colleges and, as a result, ignore completing the FAFSA. The FAFSA provides colleges with a snapshot of a student’s financial need for college, regardless of their family’s income level. Often, many families that end up taking out high-interest private student loans would have been eligible for grants or other student aid that would not require repayment. If taking an hour to complete the FAFSA resulted in hundreds or thousands of dollars being given to a student’s education for free, it would be time well spent, regardless of the family’s income level.
Knowing What Prior-Prior Year Tax Returns Means Will Help
As part of the expansion of the FAFSA completion window, applicants now can submit what is called “Prior-Prior Year” tax returns. Tax returns are the key element that helps determine financial need and what a family or individual can be expected to contribute to their education. Previously, the previous year’s tax return was required for FAFSA completion, but put a burden on families to complete and file their tax return, as well as submit a copy for the FAFSA in the same spring season.
“Prior-Prior Year” allows more flexibility. Starting with October’s application window, applications for the 2017-18 school year will require a 2015 tax return instead of a 2016 tax return.
Review the FAFSA Application Carefully
With a broader window for submission, applicants can avoid feeling rushed to complete their FAFSA application. Reviewing the form before completing the application will make it easy to create a checklist of what information will need to be provided. With a clear checklist, gathering income documents and other relevant information will be easier and save time when completing the application.
Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
The new FAFSA application windows were created to allow more time to complete the FAFSA, but it won’t make any difference if applicants still wait until the last minute to submit their application. Set a reminder for October 1 and make plans to start the road to college with a clear financial plan by completing the FAFSA.