Start Your Engines: FAFSA Launches in 38 Days

August 23, 2016

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

Back-to-school season this year comes with an improvement for high school seniors: An earlier and (for many) easier FAFSA. Starting on Oct. 1, students will be able to complete the FAFSA using income tax information from two years prior for the next academic year, 2017-18. (If this change is news to you, get the basics from this three-page primer for counselors and mentors from the Office of Federal Student Aid.)

Early FAFSA is great for students, who will be more likely to be able to import their income tax information into the FAFSA electronically, speeding the application process and reducing likelihood of selection for additional verification of income information. It will also allow students to learn their federal aid eligibility earlier, permitting them more time to shop around and apply to colleges before admissions deadlines. 

NCAN hopes that the change will also help reverse this year’s decrease in FAFSA applications from high school seniors for the 2016-17 academic year. Generally speaking, only about 55 percent of high school seniors complete the FAFSA, leaving almost $3 billion in Pell Grants on the table annually, according to NerdWallet. Far too many students don’t know that they could get grants to help pay for college. Early FAFSA is a great opportunity to encourage communities to commit to helping more students complete the form and get the funds they need for postsecondary education. For inspiration, check out the Florida FAFSA Challenge and NCAN’s national FAFSA Completion Challenge in 22 cities with the financial support of the Kresge Foundation.

Many organizations are working to make Early FAFSA a success. Nationally, groups including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, National Association for College Admission Counseling, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, and the College Board have been sharing information among and across their memberships about the changes. States with financial aid programs will launch their applications Oct. 1 to coordinate with the form’s release. The College Board announced that the CSS Profile will also change to accept prior-prior year data.

Additionally, many states and communities are moving up their events to help students complete the FAFSA. For example, NCAN’s recent survey of 50 College Goal Sunday programs and other statewide FAFSA campaigns found that 93 percent will begin providing assistance early than in prior years, with 83 percent beginning in October. NCAN applauds this commitment to supporting students. We know change isn’t easy, and in some ways it’s a challenge to combine both college admission and financial aid assistance into the October to December timeframe.

Change also brings uncertainty. Some colleges have decided to move up their priority financial aid deadlines, which could limit students’ ability to “shop around.” The FSA ID has been a stumbling block for many low-income students since its implementation last year. Not to mention, it will take time to develop a new a rhythm  and habits for admissions and aid advising (to that end, see FSA’s new FAFSA messaging calendar and NCAN blog post on how advisors and counselors can make Early FAFSA successful). Another great resource from NASFAA is this handy chart showing which FAFSA questions should be answered using prior-prior year information and which should use current information.

NCAN will continue to share resources with the field about Early FAFSA, including forthcoming revised college admissions planning timelines for high school juniors, seniors, school counselors and college access advisers. Stay tuned to our blog and webinars for the latest news. You should also check out the FSA Financial Aid Toolkit for counselors and mentors for all handouts and presentations on the 2017-18 FAFSA. Come next August, we hope to be reporting news of increased FAFSA completion rates for the high school class of 2017!

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