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For U.S. citizens and certain eligible non-citizens applying to college in the U.S., the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is often an important part of the process. This form, which collects a family’s financial information, determines eligibility for financial aid from the federal government, including Pell grants, Federal Direct loans, and federal work-study. It’s typically also required when you apply for aid from your state or directly from your college.

 

Occasionally, the FAFSA process undergoes changes intended to make the application faster, easier, and more secure. In the past few years, a number of changes have occurred, including substantial alterations in the application timeline. It’s important to keep up to date on what the FAFSA requires so that you don’t jeopardize your eligibility for aid, which can be a deciding factor when you’re choosing a college.

 

In this post, you’ll find more information about the most recent updates to the FAFSA for the 2018-2019 school year, what these changes mean for your financial aid award, and what you can do to prepare.

 

The New FAFSA Timeline

In previous years, the FAFSA hasd become available on January 1st for students planning to attend college in the fall of that year. The federal deadline for turning in the FAFSA in order to receive federal aid was set as June 30th; however, many individual states and colleges maintained earlier deadlines for their own aid programs.

 

Due to new policies put in place by President Obama, the FAFSA now opens on October 1st of the previous year — in other words, about eleven months before the school year begins. This means that if you’re applying to colleges for the 2018-2019 school year, you can get started on your FAFSA right now.

 

The federal deadline to turn in the FAFSA is still June 30th, but many states and colleges continue to set earlier deadlines, whether “preferred” or final. Check with your state and the financial aid offices of the colleges you’re applying to so that you don’t miss any important deadlines or miss out on first-come, first-serve aid opportunities.

 

This isn’t the first year that the new FAFSA timeline has been used — the change went into effect for the 2017-2018 FAFSA, so school officials and others have had a chance to start getting use to this new opening date. However, not everyone is aware of the change yet — parents of older students may still make plans based on the old dates, and if you’re using outdated college planning resources, they may not reflect the new timeline.

 

Changes to the FAFSA Process

Along with the change in opening date, the FAFSA has changed in terms of what information it collects. Previously, the FAFSA collected your family’s financial data for the year that had just ended. For example, in January 2014, you would have submitted your tax information from 2013.

 

As you might expect, this timeline caused problems for some families, particularly those of early applicants and those who filed tax extensions. People who submitted financial aid applications using estimates to meet deadlines might find that their information, and thus their aid eligibility, changed later on.

 

In its new incarnation, introduced last fall, the FAFSA collects tax information from two years ago — e.g., 2016 tax information is used to determine aid for the 2018-2019 school year. This is sometimes referred to as “prior prior year” data. Families usually have their tax information from that long ago completed, even if they filed for extensions or had other issues, so it’s easier for the federal government to get figures that are correct and final.

 

Of course, this approach doesn’t always work perfectly. For instance, your financial status may have changed within the last year — if your parent lost their job midway through 2017, your 2016 tax data may not accurately reflect your family’s ability to pay for college. If you’re in this situation, talk to your college’s financial aid office to see how they may be able to accommodate your special circumstances.

 

Updates to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT, is a handy tool built into the FAFSA that allows students and parents to automatically copy some of their tax information from the IRS website to the FAFSA form. Using this tool can speed up the process and also ensure that your data is correct — copying numbers by hand inevitably involves a higher risk of typos.

 

This spring, the DRT was shut down due to security concerns, as we covered in our post The IRS Data Retrieval Tool Outage: How Will It Affect You? The DRT is back for the 2018-2019 FAFSA, but some changes have been made to better protect your sensitive financial information and prevent identity theft.

 

In brief, the DRT now uses a system called “blind submission.” In previous years, when you used the DRT, you could see and, if necessary, edit your tax information before it was submitted as part of your FAFSA. This year, if you use this tool, you’ll get a confirmation message indicating that the data was sent, but you won’t actually be able to view that data as it was placed in the FAFSA form.

 

The obvious downside of this approach is that you can’t double-check the numbers, which many people do for peace of mind. However, the information you’re submitting comes directly from the IRS, so as long as your tax forms were filled out and processed correctly, the data provided by the DRT should be accurate.

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How will these changes affect my financial aid award?

In most cases, these procedural changes won’t have a direct, dramatic impact upon how much financial aid you receive in the end. However, this year’s FAFSA updates may affect your financial aid application process in a number of other ways, which could indirectly impact your aid award.

 

It’s not yet clear how the changes to the FAFSA timeline will affect the deadlines individual schools set for their financial aid applications. The majority of schools have not announced changes to their deadlines for this year, but some have, so be sure to check your school’s most updated set of application instructions.

 

If your school’s financial aid application deadlines do change, pay attention! At some schools, financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so promptness is important. Plan to meet “preferred” or “priority” deadlines, when those exist, to give yourself the best chance at receiving aid.

 

The new FAFSA timeline may also result in some schools sending award letters out earlier in the admissions season than they have in the past. This remains to be seen, however, as colleges are still adjusting to the change.

 

One thing that isn’t changing is the admissions response deadline. Even if you receive a financial aid award letter earlier than you expected, you don’t have to commit to that school ahead of schedule. You’re still welcome to wait until you’ve heard back from all the colleges you’ve applied to and compare their offers.

 

Approaching the New FAFSA Process

Filling out the FAFSA takes time and work, but it’s genuinely not as stressful as you might worry it will be. The financial aid opportunities it opens up are well worth the effort.

 

Before we go, here are a few final tips for filling out the new FAFSA:

 

  • Keep your financial records accurate and accessible. You’ll need them for the FAFSA and other financial aid forms in the years to come.
  • Follow directions. Answer the questions fully and accurately as they apply to you. If you don’t provide all the appropriate information, your award letter may be inaccurate, delayed, or not calculated at all.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Contact the college’s financial aid office if you need to check deadlines, get more information, or confirm procedures. It’s their job to help you get it right the first time.
  • Point out special circumstances if necessary. If your financial situation has changed recently, you have particularly unusual life circumstances, or you feel that the standard FAFSA questions don’t accurately reflect your financial need, use the space the FAFSA provides to describe the situation, and contact each college’s financial aid office to find out if you’ll need to do anything else.

 

Learning More

Looking for more information about the FAFSA and how to complete it? CollegeVine has you covered. Check out these posts from our blog for our advice on how to handle this important part of the college application process.

 

 

Navigating the college application process is much easier with an experienced advisor by your side. Visit the CollegeVine College Application Guidance Program on our website for details of the services we offer.

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Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu