Teresa McUsic

Filing date for FAFSA moved up to get jump on college financial aid

Parents can fill out the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) three months earlier, starting Oct. 1, to get a jump on college aid.
Parents can fill out the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) three months earlier, starting Oct. 1, to get a jump on college aid. TNS

If you’re a college-bound high school senior or will be supporting one, it’s time to see what kind of financial help you can get.

In other words, starting Oct. 1, fill out the FAFSA.

This year, the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) is available three months earlier, and the extra time will have a big impact on students and schools alike.

First, parents and potential college freshmen will likely fill out the FAFSA — the entryway to federal, state and even institutional financial aid — before they even apply to schools. The deadline for college applications is Dec. 1 for most state public schools and Jan. 1 for most privates. That hasn’t changed.

But by filling out the FAFSA a few months earlier, those schools will have access to your financial information, and that means award letters will come much quicker.

“We will be awarding to our incoming freshman as early as December, certainly by January,” said Karen Krause, executive director of financial aid at the University of Texas at Arlington. “In the past, it was late March or early April before award letters came out.”

Earlier award letters will help students and their families make better decisions, said Mike Scott, director of financial aid for TCU.

“Before, students would have to wait three months after being admitted to know if they could afford to go to school,” Scott said. “Now TCU’s financial aid letters will be sent out simultaneously with the admissions letters, or if not, very shortly after.”

Both schools have big pools of financial aid to draw from, the counselors said. UTA has more than $300 million available in financial aid, with 70 percent of students on average receiving some form of aid, Krause said. TCU disburses around $200 million in financial aid each year, with 75 percent of students receiving aid, Scott said.

With earlier information, students and families will have more time to discuss the financial side of college before May 1, the national decision day for most schools, said Mark Kantrowitz, author of numerous books on college financial aid and publisher and vice president of Cappex.com, a website to search for colleges and scholarships. .

“This will help them make smarter, more informed decisions about where to enroll,” he said. “It will certainly reduce the pressure on students and their families.”

The earlier FAFSA option also will be easier to fill out, as most applicants will be able to use the IRS data retrieval tool, which pulls numbers directly from last year’s tax returns.

Previously, when the form was only available after Jan. 1, applicants had to either estimate their taxes or wait until they filed to use the tool. Now when filling out the FAFSA, they will have to opt out of not using the tool.

Filling out the form will take less time as the FAFSA will automatically fill in many fields from the prior tax return. It also will be easier on schools, which up to now had to randomly audit many of the forms by asking for a hard copy of the filer’s tax returns.

“Many more families will be able to use the IRS data retrieval tool this year,” Kantrowitz said. “Since data elements that are transferred unmodified using the IRS data retrieval tool are not subject to verification, the number of FAFSAs selected for verification should drop from one-third to less than 10 percent.”

Even if the student is unsure which schools they will apply to, they should list all their potential schools on the FAFSA, as there is no cost to send the form to a school. Be sure to make the student’s first choice a public school, however, so they will be aligned with state and public aid, whether they end up going to that school or not.

One issue with the earlier FAFSA is that tax data will be two years old by the time the student attends school, which could cause some problems if families face issues like divorce, job loss, salary reduction or new members, Krause said. Financial aid offices have always been open to consider changing family circumstances, but the longer time frame may cause more changes than previously occurred, she said.

Another financial aid form used mostly by private schools, the CSS/Financial Aid profile, has always had an Oct. 1 start date. But it, too, will be switching from using an estimate of the prior year’s income and taxes to using tax information from a year earlier, or in this case, 2015 data, Kantrowitz said.

While filling out the FAFSA in October is recommended for entering freshmen, it is not as critical for returning college students, Krause said. Returning students should get their aid information for the following school year earlier if they do, however, starting in January. The aid will be pending their spring semester grades, if a certain GPA has to be maintained.

Scott said TCU will wait until the summer for returning students to receive their aid, in order to check their spring semester grades.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Free help

  • In person. The Fort Worth school district is holding financial aid sessions in English and Spanish in October to help parents and students fill out the FAFSA. www.FWISD.org
  • Online. Adventures in Education (www.aie.org) has videos in English and Spanish on filling out the FAFSA and the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA). Also, www.collegeforalltexans.com explains all state and federal financial aid programs, including the TEXAS and Pell grants.
  • By phone. The Texas Financial Aid Information Center has a hotline for any FAFSA questions at 888-311-8881. The Federal Student Aid Information Center hotline is 800-433-3243.
  • Financial Aid Forms online. The FAFSA can be filled out at www.FAFSA.gov.