It’s already time for parents and students to apply for college financial aid for the next school year starting in the fall.
But before you start gathering tax forms and Social Security numbers, there are several important changes this year in the government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Remember, the FAFSA unlocks billions in federal, state and institutional financial aid (grants, loans and scholarships) to cover higher education costs.
First, everybody — students and parents alike — needs a new identity called the FSA ID. The old PIN numbers won’t work anymore. Parents will need one if they still have students as a dependent in order to electronically sign the form.
It’s a relatively simple process that takes about 15 minutes. But if you make an error, as I did, it will take you several days to straighten out. Until then, you don’t have access to the FAFSA.
To apply for an FSA ID, go to www.StudentAid.gov/fsaid. From there, you will fill out several pages of identifying information, including no less than five security questions, two of which you make up yourself and one that is an important date in your life.
The Department of Education will then check with the Social Security Administration to make sure you are who you say you are, and once cleared you will have access to the FAFSA form. This will take 1-3 days.
But if you make an error, as I did, you will be kicked out of the system, invited to re-apply and correct any problems, then wait a few more days.
“Part of the reason for the complicated process is that the FSA ID is an electronic signature and so is subject to stricter security standards,” said Mark Kantrowitz, author of the newly released Twisdoms about Paying for College and publisher of Cappex.com, an online college and scholarship research tool. “The old FSA PINs were not secure enough.”
While time is not a problem right now, it will be soon. Most deadlines for schools and states to fill out the FAFSA begin in February. Texas schools typically give you until March, but the pools of aid decrease over time, so getting your application in early increases your chances of receiving it.
The new ID system could be an issue for families seeking help from local groups like college financial aid offices or the GO Centers at the Fort Worth high schools and other locations.
“Some families can’t do the email verification there, so it is not quite a one-stop shop,” Kantrowitz said. Try to set up your FSA ID before you go to seek help with the FAFSA.
Another change this year: The government will no longer share the list of colleges listed on the FAFSA among the schools.
Students tended to list colleges in preference order and if the student got into the first college listed on the FAFSA, they would enroll half to two-thirds of the time, Kantrowitz said. The second college listed on the FAFSA, one-third of the time, and the third college, just 10 percent of the time.
“Some colleges were using this information to influence admissions decisions,” Kantrowitz said. For example, they wouldn’t admit students who listed them fourth or lower, in order to improve the college’s yield and rankings.
While the order of schools no longer matters, it is still important to list any Texas schools first if you want state aid — including the TEXAS Grant, Texas Educational Opportunity Grant, Hazelwood benefit for children of veterans or Texas work-study program.
In total, $1.1 billion is available in state college financial aid this fall after a 5 percent increase from the last legislative session.
Finally, the government is also changing the timing for next year. Instead of waiting until January to open up filing, the form will be available in October for the 2016-17 school year.
This will allow parents and students to immediately download IRS tax information from their tax filing this year to determine the amount of aid awarded.
Downloading tax information directly from the IRS has been available in the past through FAFSA’s IRS Data Retrieval tool, but most parents and students did not file taxes until after they had already filed the FAFSA. Now the taxes will typically be filed well before the FAFSA.
“2016 is a transition year, with two FAFSAs in one year, both based on 2015 income and tax data,” Kantrowitz said.
Take time to fill out the FAFSA now — it will likely be worth more to you than buying a lottery ticket.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
In person: GO Centers are located at the 13 Fort Worth high schools, three churches and the downtown library. Also, college financial help sessions by the Fort Worth school district are scheduled starting Jan. 28 at Paschal High School. Open to the public. Full schedule at www.fwisd.org.
Online: Adventures In Education (www.aie.org) has videos in English and Spanish about filling out the FAFSA and the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA) for undocumented students. Also, try www.CollegeForAllTexans.com and www.CollegeScorecard.ed.gov.
By phone: The Texas Financial Aid Information Center has a hotline at 888-311-8881. The Federal Student Aid Information Center hotline is 800-433-3243.