By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations
By now, you’ve likely heard about the big changes coming for FAFSA: An October 1 start date and a switch to using a family’s financial information from an earlier tax year. These changes have great promise to make the federal student aid system work better for low-income students.
But change to big, complicated systems is hard, and it’s normal for us to prefer to rely on established patterns to get our work done efficiently. So, putting aside our understandable uncertainty, how can we best prepare for the change to early FAFSA?
1. Plan for changes to your traditional advising timeline.
One primary benefit of early FAFSA is that it will tell students their federal aid eligibility before most college application deadlines, instead of after, and encourage students to apply to a wider range of institutions. Thus, college access advisors and schools should consider moving their financial aid nights to August and September and beginning FAFSA completion assistance in October, rather than January.
This change will cause overlap with admissions application assistance traditionally provided in October and November, but the extra effort required to complete admissions and FAFSA in the fall may be worth the trouble of not having to chase down students a second time to complete FAFSA in January or February. “Once and done” events that help families complete both processes are worth trying. Moving FAFSA completion assistance into October-December is particularly critical in states that distribute state aid on a first-come, first-served basis (see also #6 below).
2. Some dates won’t change.
For colleges that are members of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), they must continue to honor the traditional October 15 and May 1 deadlines. No member institution may require a fall admissions application deadline before October 15 or require students to commit to attend prior to May 1. By continuing to honor these dates, higher education institutions will preserve a longer window of time for students to consider their options.
3. Know that many other organizations are working on their parts of the puzzle.
NCAN hears many questions about whether other entities will be prepared for early FAFSA, such as financial aid offices, state aid agencies, the U.S. Department of Education and financial aid software providers. From our national perspective, the answer is yes. All of these national representatives of these groups are diligently addressing the steps needed to make early FAFSA possible, from updating computer code to changing report dates to sharing new potential best practices. This effort doesn’t mean that the first year will be a breeze, but our sense is that everyone is committed and hard at work. We commend our partners at the federal Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), National Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors (NASFAA), NACAC, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRO), the National Association of State Student Grand and Aid Agencies (NASSGAP), and the College Board for working together on planning.
4. Expect more FSA guidance in April.
FSA plans to issue additional materials for counselors, students and parents in April addressing early FAFSA and will conduct webinars to share the information widely.
5. Urge your partner institutions not to move up their existing application deadlines.
The key to giving students more time to “shop around” for college is for colleges to keep their admissions application deadlines the same. If you’re concerned about this issue, contact your primary institutions about their plans.
6. State aid applications will by and large comply with FAFSA.
According to our colleagues at NASSGAP, almost all state aid agencies are switching to use of prior-prior year tax data and moving up their aid applications to open Oct. 1. If you are concerned, contact your state agency, which you can find in the NASSGAP directory.
Next week, I’ll write about more timeline changes that college advisors can consider for the 2016-17 calendar. Part 3 of this early FAFSA series will address how we will know whether early FAFSA has succeeded. Also, you can periodically check NCAN’s Early FAFSA page, where we’ll aggregate useful information and resources.
This blog post is Part 1 of a 3 part series.
Part 2: 9 Ways College Advisors Can Make Early FAFSA Successful
Part 3: 7 Ways to Measure the Success of Early FAFSA