Teresa McUsic

Students can get earlier start on college financial aid

An earlier timeline for filling out the FAFSA may help more students land financial aid.
An earlier timeline for filling out the FAFSA may help more students land financial aid. NYT

As anyone who has been through the college application process knows, getting accepted is only half the battle.

Then comes how to pay for it.

A move this week by the Education Department and President Barack Obama will shed light on how much college will cost earlier in the process and will enable families to better compare price tags for schools.

Starting in October 2016, families of college-bound high school seniors will be able to access the Free Application for Federal Student Aid three months earlier.

“This will give families some student aid information sooner — such as the federal Pell Grant and federal student loan eligibility — and get them thinking about affordability at the start of the process instead of later,” said Mark Kantrowitz, author of Filing the FAFSA and publisher of edvisors.com.

Also, filling out the FAFSA will be faster and simpler because parents and students can download IRS information from their previous tax return directly into the application. That process has been available for a few years. But parents were often unable to file their taxes before they completed the FAFSA, so the application was based on estimated taxes that later had to be revised.

“It will offer a streamlined process where most applicants will download income and tax data into the form using the IRS data retrieval tool,” Kantrowitz said. “This will reduce the number of questions for most applicants and make the process easier to manage. It will yield a much smoother process.”

The difficulty of filling out the FAFSA has often deterred families.

Only 47 percent of Texans in the Class of 2015 filled out the form, according to data from TG, a nonprofit in Round Rock that promotes higher education. Those numbers were slightly higher in Tarrant County and in the Fort Worth school district, which saw a 50 percent completion rate.

But the completion rate in Texas is much lower than in Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee, where more than 60 percent of seniors fill out the form.

Studies have cited a 25 to 30 percent increase in the likelihood that low- and middle-income students will enroll in college if they complete the FAFSA.

“These changes will allow students and families to determine the true cost of attending college — taking available financial aid into account — and make more informed decisions,” said James Patterson, TG’s president and CEO.

Kantrowitz sees several advantages for students with the pushed-up FAFSA options.

“Most colleges already have January deadlines for applying for institutional financial aid. So this change will better align families with the college’s current deadlines,” he said. “The number of applicants qualifying for financial aid will increase because they will miss fewer deadlines.”

Financial aid notifications may also move up a month or two instead of arriving in late March or April, he said. And the broader timeline will reduce the stress on financial aid administrators, who review thousands of applications in a short period.

Kantrowitz said that before the change was announced, students who filed the FAFSA in January, February or March received more than twice as much funding, on average, as students who filed later.

“Waiting to file the FAFSA after filing federal income tax returns causes some families to miss state and college deadlines for financial aid,” he said. “Even some federal student aid programs, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study, have fixed allocations per college, so the money runs out quickly.”

Having the new deadline and using the previous year’s tax return will enable families to hit those deadlines, he said.

There is also a movement in Congress to simplify the form, Kantrowitz said.

“I think a simpler form is likely to occur, since Sen. [Lamar] Alexander, chair of the Senate [Committee] on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, is a strong proponent of FAFSA simplification,” he said.

An estimated 2 million students enrolled in college would have been eligible for Pell Grants but never applied.

Locally, school financial aid centers will encourage students to pay attention to the new deadline next year.

“Changing from Jan. 1 to Oct. 1 is giving students and families more time to plan their financial package, apply and enroll,” said Glenn Spoons, education manager with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber sponsors 16 GO Centers in Fort Worth high schools and some middle schools where college advisers, college and career readiness coaches, and education talent searchers from the Boys & Girls Clubs counsel students.

Schools in Arlington and Mansfield, as well as some public libraries and community centers in Tarrant County, also have GO Centers.

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