Applying for financial aid is about to get a little easier for college-bound students and their parents.
The application window for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, is getting an adjustment to work in conjunction with the application process, not as an afterthought.
Starting in fall 2016, you’ll be able to apply for financial aid almost a whole year in advance of when you plan to attend college.
So if you plan to start college in fall 2017, you can fill out your FAFSA as early as October 2016, using data from your family’s 2015 tax return.
Why This Change is Awesome
Under today’s FAFSA rules, students and their parents must wait until January to apply for financial aid for that year’s fall semester.
But you have to file your annual taxes to get the calculations you need to fill out the FAFSA, meaning many families — after waiting for handfuls of W2s and 1099s to arrive — don’t file their taxes until February, March or April.
By that time, many students already have already received college admission offers. But without financial aid information and package offers, it’s harder for those students to make a decision about which schools they can afford to attend.
“It has become clear that telling students about aid after they apply to colleges — the current practice — is no way to convince nervous students that college can be affordable,” writes University of Michigan professor Susan Dyanarski in the New York Times.
Bumping the FAFSA application window up by six months helps college-bound families make smarter financial decisions before accepting admission at that dream school.
By knowing its estimated contribution for tuition and room and board before applying, a family can help a college-bound student determine how much aid they’re comfortable taking on, including Stafford loans, Pell grants and work-study assignments.
IRS Integration Means the FAFSA is Getting Even Easier
But wait! There’s more good news for FAFSA filers.
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which is now available to only 20% of FAFSA applicants, will be expanded next year so nearly all applicants can import their most recent tax data directly from the IRS.
This tool is a total gamechanger for families. Instead of flipping through a paper copy of your taxes to figure out which amounts you’re supposed to be transcribing into parts of the FAFSA, a simple click of a button will auto-fill the necessary tax information into the online FAFSA form.
The change means you can be more confident you filled out the application correctly. It’ll also reduce the number of aid applications schools have to audit per Department of Education rules — a burden off the shoulders of financial aid staff.
Beyond the FAFSA: How to Pay for College
The FAFSA change improves the college financial planning process, but doesn’t perfect it. It’s still up to you to save and seek ways to pay for college, whether you’re applying for aid for the 2016 school year or planning ahead.
Here are a few methods to investigate for your personal situation:
Apply for Scholarships (Lots of Them)
While financial aid packages sometimes involve grants, which don’t need to be repaid, most of your aid package will be made up of dreaded loans.
Your solution: Apply for scholarships until your eyes cross.
Many scholarships are meant for incoming freshman, but still many others cater to upperclassmen, nontraditional students and part-time students.
Visit your high school college counselor and check out local community organizations for scholarship opportunities near you.
Talk to Financial Aid Officers
If you’re visiting colleges, make time to meet with someone from the financial aid department.
These professionals can tell you all about the ins and outs of maximizing financial aid at their schools, and it’s a great opportunity to get answers to a lot of money questions that are probably making you nervous. (Then you can focus on worrying about the real worst part of applying for college: the essay.)
Even if you’re already enrolled, it’s never too late to meet with financial aid staff to talk through your challenges, opportunities, and options for paying for college. Remember that your financial aid office is there to help, not to discourage you!
Start Paying Off Your Loans Before You Graduate
Reducing your loan balance in turn reduces the amount of interest you’ll have to pay once you’re out of school. And no one likes to pay interest.
Consider a Career Field That Could Pay For School
Most of us aren’t lucky enough to get a full-ride scholarship to our dream school. But some careers offer opportunities to have your student loans reduced or forgiven after graduation.
The federal government rewards teachers and public servants by forgiving a portion of student loans after a certain period of work. If you’re a nurse, corrections officer, family services worker or early intervention provider with Perkins loans, you could have those loans completely forgiven.
Your Turn: How will the FAFSA changes affect your college search?
Lisa Rowan is a writer, editor, and podcaster living in Baltimore. She remembers filling out her undergrad FAFSAs on paper.