Each year, millions of incoming and current college students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. Completing the FAFSA allows students to see if they qualify for federal grants, loans, and scholarships to be used to help pay for college—maximizing their search for financial aid.
Completing a FAFSA requires students and their families to fill out dozens of forms summarizing tax returns, demographic information, and personal information the year preceding the one in which the student plans on attending college. This means that a student who will attend college for four years may complete four FAFSAs over the course of his or her college career.
It’s a process that has a reputation for being complex and time-consuming. As a result, some students and their families opt not to file the FAFSA each year, forgoing potential financial aid. Without financial assistance, many of these students struggle to pay for college, and some skip it altogether.
Recognizing these challenges, President Barack Obama announced some major FAFSA changes in September that are meant to make it easier for students to apply for federal student aid. These adjustments—set to go into effect for the 2017–2018 school year— follow other changes to the FAFSA process, such as streamlining the online form and creating a more straightforward IRS income information accessibility tool.
Filing for the 2017-2018 FAFSA will be different from today’s process in two important ways:
Students can file a FAFSA earlier
Currently, students can complete and file a FAFSA starting on January 1 for the following academic year. So, a student filling out a FAFSA for the 2016-2017 academic year could begin filling out his or her FAFSA on Jan. 1, 2016. However, many students don’t file their FAFSA until months later, in April, when their families receive tax return information that is needed to complete the form. With most college applications due in the fall, students aren’t able to use the financial aid information received after filing a FAFSA to help them make informed financial decisions on where to apply to college.
For the 2017-2018 academic year, the FAFSA opening date will be permanently moved from January 1 to October 1 each year, starting on October 1, 2016. This allows students to make informed college application decisions based on their individual financial aid situations.
The 2016-2017 FAFSA will be the last FAFSA to open on January 1, and students who plan on attending college between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, must submit a FAFSA between January 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017.
Students can use earlier income information on their FAFSA
Students are currently required to file the FAFSA using income information from the preceding tax year. But, as mentioned above, since the existing January 1 opening date for filing falls before taxes are due, many students wait to file the FAFSA until their family files taxes in April. While it is possible to file the FAFSA using estimated income information before filing taxes, this information can be inaccurate and may need to be corrected, complicating the FAFSA filing process.
Instead of asking for prior-year tax information, the 2017-2018 FAFSA asks students to provide information from one year earlier than the prior year. So, the 2017-2018 FAFSA will ask for 2015 income information. This change allows students to complete the FAFSA online using electronically imported information from the IRS, rather than estimating family income (which may need to be corrected later) or waiting until their prior-year tax returns are filed (which may mean they lose out on financial aid packages).
Students who plan on attending college between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, will still be asked to provide prior-year income information—in this case, based on their families’ 2015 tax returns.