Applying for federal financial aid each year is often a mystifying, excruciating process for college-bound students and their families.
It starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a confounding document with roughly 130 questions about a family’s finances. The task is so difficult that in North Carolina, financial aid counselors volunteer their time at workshops to each year to help students conquer the form.
For years, policy makers have talked about simplifying the process. Several tweaks have been made in recent years, but now big changes are on the way.
This week, President Barack Obama announced a major shift in the time line for the FAFSA, which could simplify the process and provide students with financial aid notifications earlier. In the past, definitive financial aid offers would arrive months after students applied and were admitted to college.
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Starting in the 2017-18 year, students are likely to be in a better position to choose a college with solid financial aid awards in hand.
The news came on the heels of the administration unveiling its new College Scorecard, which gives the public more information about individual colleges’ student outcomes and other performance indicators.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted the new FAFSA schedule on a bus tour of the Midwest this week. Some changes had already been implemented. The online form has been streamlined so that it skips questions that aren’t relevant to particular students. The form now takes about 20-25 minutes to complete, Duncan said, or about a third of the time it took a couple of years ago.
The earlier schedule, he said, would allow students and their families to make more informed decisions.
“We think this small step that makes people’s lives easier could have a huge impact over time,” Duncan said. “We estimate that over the next several years, literally hundreds of thousands of additional students will actually gain access to critical student aid each year, because more students and their families will find it easier to apply for that aid. That’s financial aid that students absolutely need and deserve, and that historically, sadly, they were leaving on the table.”
Though FAFSA simplification does appear to have bipartisan support, some warn of the undetermined costs of many more students applying for federal aid.
Two who chair congressional higher education panels weighed in on the issue. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, and Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, issued a joint statement this week saying the FAFSA change would help students make smarter decisions about paying for college.
“But make no mistake, this announcement comes at a cost to taxpayers, and it seems the administration has no responsible plan to pay for it,” the statement said. “We need reforms to higher education that serve the best interests of both students and taxpayers, and the best way to achieve that goal is to reform the law. That continues to be our priority, and, as we have said repeatedly, it’s time the administration joined that effort.”
Consumer advocates and financial aid experts cheered the move, though there are still questions about implementation.
Shirley Ort, UNC-Chapel Hill’s associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, said the FAFSA overhaul had been discussed for years.
“It is a big change, but I think it’s going to be positive change for both institutions and parents and students,” she said. “It will take a lot of the wrinkles out of our current system.”
The shift may present challenges to some colleges that don’t have generous financial aid budgets, Ort said. But the competition will be a boon to students looking for the best buy.
“It’s likely that families will have more time now to really study differences in aid offers,” she said.
Here is a rundown of the changes:
What’s different about the FAFSA? Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, students will be able to fill out the FAFSA starting on Oct. 1 of 2016, as opposed to January of 2017. Previously, financial aid decisions lagged admissions decisions, so students deliberated about colleges without knowing exactly what kind of aid they could get. Now, financial aid award notifications should be more aligned with the admissions process.
What’s the big deal about the new time line? The new schedule means that students will submit financial information based on their parents’ income for what’s known as the “prior prior year,” or two years before they enroll. Under the current process, students were submitting financial data in the winter or spring before the fall semester – based on the prior tax year. The problem with that was that parents’ tax returns often weren’t done in time, adding stress to the process. The new schedule will allow families to use an IRS retrieval tool that will automatically pull data from the last completed tax return.
Are colleges going to change their deadlines, too? That remains to be seen, but many colleges and universities have indicated their intention to do so.
How do I get more information? To learn more about applying for federal financial aid, go to fafsa.ed.gov. To learn more about individual colleges’ performance, go to CollegeScorecard.ed.gov