What to Know About Applying for Financial Aid This Year
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What to Know About Applying for Financial Aid This Year
Niels V.


Gone are the days of parents trying to simultaneously do their taxes and fill out the FAFSA in a mad dash to the financial aid deadline.

In past years, families were asked to asked to use their most recent tax info to apply for financial aid, meaning the FAFSA was released on January 1. Last September, the federal government announced that it was throwing in the towel – all the trouble just wasn’t worth it.

Starting this year, families will have more time to get their financial aid applications in order. But that also means you can’t wait until after the holidays to sit down and confront the FAFSA, CSS and any other delightful forms you may have to submit.

Rather, financial aid season is now. Here’s what you need to know.

1. The FAFSA Is Now Available October 1

Yes, this October 1.

Families can start working on the FAFSA three months earlier than in years past. This change adds a hefty chunk of time to the financial aid process.

Encouraging families to get an early jump on financial aid applications, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has even launched a pug-themed social media campaign to spread the word that October, not January, is now the month of FAFSA.

2. You’ll Use Earlier Tax Data

The October start to the financial aid process is possible because FAFSA will now be based on prior-prior year income rather than prior year income.

To put that in terms that don’t make such heavy use of the word “prior”: if you’re applying for the 2017-2018 school year, you’ll use 2015’s taxes, not 2016’s.

This change means parents won’t be sitting down to work out their taxes right as they’re being handed the FAFSA to fill in and will avoid complications that used to arise like having to use estimates on the FAFSA and then submit tax info later.

3. Schools Still Set Their Own Deadlines

Just because the feds are opening up the FAFSA earlier doesn’t mean schools are planning on doing anything differently. Many schools are keeping the same financial aid deadlines as before. But some are adjusting their processes.

Therefore, checking financial aid deadlines on a school-by-school basis is crucial. Make a list of what each school you’re applying to needs and when they need it. You’ll definitely want to be in the know about this early on. There are some surprises that are good, but a financial aid deadline isn’t one of them!

4. The Early Bird Gets the Financial Aid

This is a case where just because you can apply early probably does mean you should. The nice thing about the October deadline is that parents can now get started with financial aid while students are working on applications.

This isn’t simply an act of solidarity. It has practical benefits too. For starters, some schools have a first-come, first-served financial aid process, in which case you’ll want to hit the ground running in October for obvious reasons.

Applying for financial aid can also be a lengthy process. You’ll want to get it underway as soon as possible to avoid a scenario where you’ve been accepted but still don’t know your financial aid award.

Of course, for some schools sending in your information early won’t make much of a difference. But in general, this is a situation where it’s better to error on the side of getting things out of the way.

5. Asset Protection Is Being Cut

Not all the changes this year are good news for families.

FAFSA exempts a portion of parents’ assets from being counted toward college expenses, allowing some students to receive more financial aid than if all their parents’ assets were taken into account. The exact number varies based on factors like age, but in general, the asset protection allowance is being significantly lowered this year and may drop further in the future.

Parents applying for financial aid this year should be aware of this. Parents planning for future years may want to take it into account in deciding how they distribute their assets.

6. Colleges Won’t Know Where You Send Your FAFSA, But Some State Agencies Will

When you submit the FAFSA, you can put the schools you want it sent to. In the past, schools that receive your FAFSA have been able to see what other schools you’ve listed and what order you’ve listed them in.

Fortunately, colleges are prohibited from using this information in the admissions process. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t do it, and there have been some worries that schools are treating applicants differently based on how the applicants rank schools.

Starting this year, colleges will no longer know where else you sent your FAFSA and what order you wrote down schools in.

However, there’s one important caveat to keep in mind. While individual schools don’t have access to this information anymore, some state agencies that determine aid awards still do. So when listing what schools you want to share your FAFSA with, you might want to put state schools first. If everyone follows the letter of the law, it won’t make a difference, but it’s not a given that everyone does, so it probably won’t hurt.

7. The CSS Profile Has a New Timeline Coinciding With FAFSA
FAFSA tends to get the limelight, but the CSS Profile deserves some attention too. You can think of the CSS Profile as FAFSA’s rather unattractive sibling.

The CSS Profile is a more in-depth financial aid form used for many private financial aid awards. Some schools require the CSS in addition to the FAFSA, so that’s one of the things to check on a school-by-school basis.

The good news is that CSS’s timeline is being adjusted to mirror that of FAFSA. This year’s CSS is being released in October, so as with FAFSA, you can get a head start using last year’s taxes.

8. You Can Get Started on Financial Aid Applications Today

No need to wait. That’s the beauty of the new timeline.

Your first step should be to go through each school you’re applying for financial aid from and make a list of what you need to submit and when you need to submit it. There are real differences in the financial aid process form one school to the next, so get this done early.

Once you’re ready to actually get started on the FAFSA, you need to get a Federal Student Aid ID, or FSA ID. This will be used to link you the citizen or resident of the United States to you the financial aid applicant, so you’ll need to provide some identifying information like your Social Security number.

When you have an ID, you can tackle the FAFSA itself. Just go to the FAFSA website and click on “Start a New FAFSA.” It won’t necessarily take you more than an hour to complete the FAFSA, but you’ll have to collect all the required documents, make sure you fill everything in (!), and check that the information you provided is correct – so you don’t want to rush it.

Although there can be a lot of uncertainty and anxiety surrounding financial aid applications, the process of applying is straightforward and logical once you learn what you need for each school. Even more so with the new application timeline. Take a deep breath, keep a to-do list, and take advantage of this year’s October opening date – you’ll have all your financial aid forms signed and turned in before you even know it.

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