FAFSA Policy Changes Help Turn College Dreams into Reality

February 21, 2017

By Rachel Worsham and Rachel Gentry, college advisers, Carolina College Advising Corps 

"While instilling a greater sense of independence within our students is a wonderful side effect of these changes, we think the greatest merit is the potential to make college attendance feel less like a dream and more of a reality."

March 1: To most, this date seems benign. Payday. Rent is due. But for college advisers in North Carolina, starting in January, our hands started to sweat as March 1 loomed. Frantic, pleading emails were sent, and a general sense of panic set in. Why, you may ask? March 1 is North Carolina’s priority deadline for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Meaning, in order to be eligible for full financial aid packages, high school seniors and college students across the state had only two months to ensure their parents filed taxes for the previous year, and to then submit a FAFSA. However, we were thrilled that for the 2017-18 cycle, students could begin applying for aid as early as Oct. 1. The policy changes surrounding the FAFSA have been nothing short of game-changing for the work of “College Access Gladiators” across the country.

Our names are Rachel Worsham and Rachel Gentry. We are college advisers at Carolina College Advising Corps, an organization based out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Office of Undergraduate Admissions that places recent college graduates into schools with large populations of low-income, underrepresented and first-generation students with the mission of increasing college enrollment.

The bottom line is that these changes to the FAFSA have already made a powerful difference. We’re delighted to report that there has been an increase in the overall rate at which students at College Advising Corps partner schools across the nation are completing their FAFSAs: The students we serve filed 6,600 more FAFSAs within the first six weeks after the form became available in October for the 2017-18 school year than they did during the first six weeks of the 2016-17 cycle, when the form became available in January.

Given that a lack of money is one of the most prominent barriers to college access, the FAFSA and financial aid process in general are crucial to our mission. Moving the FAFSA release to October and transitioning to the use of “prior-prior year” (PPY) taxes have obvious benefits for the work of college advisers and school counselors across the nation: more time to publicize and facilitate FAFSA completion, greater ability to discuss financial aid award letters with students, and more time to complete the verification process with students before the school year comes to an end.

Moreover, these new policies surrounding the FAFSA have changed the nature of the conversations college access professionals have with first-semester high school seniors. The vast majority of students are -- understandably -- most concerned with financing their college education. It is not uncommon for the first words we hear from a senior in August to be “How do I find scholarships?” or “There is no way my family can pay for college,” often before even discussing where they want to apply.

Rather than saying “Wait until January and get your taxes done ASAP,” we can now give students a tangible step to take much earlier, on Oct. 1: “Get your FAFSA done.” These changes have not only helped college access professionals by placing the application and financial aid processes on the same timeline, but have also altered the way students approach the college-going process.

We firmly believe these changes to the FAFSA have given students much more control over their futures. With the use of PPY taxes and the earlier release date, students have more flexibility to complete the FAFSA independently and at their own pace. With the absence of a fast-approaching deadline, we have seen students take more initiative to solve issues that may arise with their FAFSA, like being selected for verification (an extremely common occurrence with low-income students or students from non-traditional families). Rather than immediately seeking the support of a college or school counselor when issues arise, students have used their resources (such as parents and the internet) to navigate challenges on their own.

Additionally, first-generation college students who are completing the FAFSA by themselves are better able to do so, as they may now pull previous tax information from the Internal Revenue Service rather than rely on their parents to file that year’s taxes. While instilling a greater sense of independence within our students is a wonderful side effect of these changes, we think their greatest merit is the potential to make college attendance feel less like a dream and more of a reality.

Many of our students have a dim view of their futures, and feel college is inaccessible due to high costs of attendance and their own limited financial resources. However, the changes to the FAFSA timeline have helped alleviate these concerns and have even encouraged students to think more critically about the schools they choose to apply to. This year, students have been able to receive financial aid award letters earlier than ever before, which has affected the way they approach college in two ways. First, these letters help students realize earlier that college is a reality for them, as they can see how their education will be funded. Second, better connecting the admissions and financial aid application processes has helped our students better prepare when choosing where to apply and how they will fund their education. In prior years, students have gravitated toward schools with which they are familiar without knowledge of cost, often leading to surprising and unaffordable financial aid packages. That issue has been alleviated somewhat this year, as students have received these packages as early as December, leaving them more time to apply to schools that have lower costs of attendance and friendlier financial aid policies.

The positive effects of the Oct. 1 release and shift to PPY are monumental, yet we also believe it will take more than federal policy change to make American higher education financially accessible for all students. We believe that institutions themselves must make an unwavering commitment to being affordable and accessible to low-income students. The changes to the 2017-18 FAFSA laid a groundwork that allows low-income, underrepresented, first-generation college students to complete the FAFSA more quickly and easily than ever before. It is our hope that this will be the first step in encouraging colleges and universities -- whether public, private, small, or large -- to prioritize working with students to make college a financial reality.

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