FAFSA Changes: Your 2017 College Financial Aid Guide

Not sure where to start with FAFSA, or if it's even worth your time in the first place? (HINT: It is!) Here's everything you need to know.


FAFSA is now available… sooner than ever!

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2017-18 academic year was released on Saturday, October 1, making it available three months earlier than previous years. Of course, with any change comes confusion, so we’re here to lay out all of the answers for you.

1. Apart from the new release date, what changed this year?

The major change this year is the tax information that is required. Both the 2016-17 and the 2017-18 (this year’s) FAFSA will be based on 2015 tax information. The main reason for the change is actually to benefit YOU, as it will make the application process much easier.

First, because the FAFSA now asks for older income information (and you will have already done your taxes for the required year when you go to fill it out), you will not need to estimate your info and then go back into FAFSA at a later date to update it. Also, you may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which will automatically import your tax information (and save you from having to answer so many questions!).

Finally, the earlier release date gives families more time to research and apply for financial aid before state and school deadlines, which will hopefully lead to less stress and more clarity.

2. How do I get an FSA ID?

Creating an FSA ID is easy. To do so, students (and at least one of their parents) should go to fsaid.ed.gov to create a user ID and password. Both will need to provide their respective Social Security Numbers (or Green Card if you don’t have an SSN), dates of birth, and names as they appear on official documents.

Students under the age of 24 will need their parents to also get an ID, and the student and parent will need separate email accounts to do so. (An FSA ID can be created without an email account. But trust us. In the event that you forget your FSA ID password, it will be easier if you have an email address.) Since there is a verification period of 1-3 days, we recommend creating an ID as soon as possible since it will serve as your legal signature on your FAFSA, which you will want to submit sooner than later.

3. Who should fill out a FAFSA?

Everyone. Period.

Many wealthy and even middle class families forgo filing a FAFSA because they heard that only students from families that earn less than $50,000 receive federal grants. However, there are several reasons why everyone should fill one out.

First of all, college is SO expensive these days that it has become a burden on families of various socio-economic strata. Second, many financial aid programs, even the ones that award scholarships and grants regardless of family income, require a completed FAFSA. Finally, filing a FAFSA can sometimes give students a competitive edge in the admissions process. Admissions committees know that students in need (or hopes) of aid who have not filled out a FAFSA are less likely to enroll, so they might not send you an acceptance letter if they’re skeptical that you will even attend.

4. When is it due?

Despite being available much earlier, families should still fill out the FAFSA application as soon as possible. Each state has their own deadline (most of which are much earlier than June 30, the final deadline), and several, such as Illinois and Washington, award aid on a “first-come, first serve” basis. Each college also has their own FAFSA deadline, which should be met, as well. FAFSA expects that most of the state and school deadlines will remain approximately the same as in 2016-17, but it is important to know your state and school deadlines so that you’re not left scrambling or missing out on potential aid.

At the same time, families shouldn’t stress out too much if they’re late because need-based grants and loans can be received retroactively, as long as the form is submitted by the FINAL deadline, June 30, 2017. However, waiting this long will mean missing out on scholarships and aid from organizations with much stricter deadlines. Procrastinating in this case could actually cost you thousands of dollars!

Especially considering that the application process has been streamlined this year, we recommend submitting by December, which will increase your odds of winning scholarships from state agencies, schools and foundations.

5. Does the earlier release date mean I will find out my aid packages earlier?

Not necessarily. After filing your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report, which is basically just a summary of the information you submitted that you should review for accuracy. This info will then be sent to the colleges that you selected to determine your financial aid eligibility. After you are accepted, colleges and universities will use this information to create a financial aid package, which might include grants, scholarships, loans and/or work study options.

Some schools will send you this information quickly, while others will take months. Most prospective freshmen who have applied before March 31, should know of their award status by April 15. While returning undergraduates usually find out closer to June.

For additional information, check out studentaid.gov/fafsa and FAFSA’s guide to “What You Need to Know” for the new 2017-18 application process..