It’s really happening.
You’re really a high school senior. You’re really applying to colleges. This is your final year of regimented class scheduling, lunch periods, and school dances. Next year, your education will take on an entirely new format in an entirely new place surrounded by entirely new people.
This hasn’t come as a surprise to you; in fact, chances are you’re ready. You’ve built your list of prospective colleges carefully, visited as many of the campuses as time and finances would allow, and spent hours poring over a killer essay that admission counselors are bound to love.
Just as with the steps you’ll follow to complete and submit your college applications, there is a separate process to apply for financial aid (in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans) to help make college affordable. It’s important for you and your parents to know, however, that as a high school senior graduating in 2017, the financial aid application process has changed dramatically from the way it was in the past.
What do you need to know?
Let’s keep it simple:
- The process will begin sooner. Previously, students applied to college in the fall and for financial aid in the spring (after January 1), only learning what their final cost for the first year would be around mid-March or early April – right before they would need to select their chosen school by the National Candidates’ Reply Deadline of May 1. The universal financial aid application form is put out by the federal government – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – and is the most widely used, though some highly-selective colleges rely on a form hosted by the College Board (the SAT people) known as the CSS Profile. For the class of 2017, the FAFSA is now available in the fall – October 1, to be exact.
- The process has been streamlined. On the old timeline, because the FAFSA became available on January 1, parents and students applied for financial aid using estimated tax information for the year, then submitted updated and/or corrected information later, which sometimes required schools to ask for additional documents to verify that everything was correct. (Needless to say, the financial aid process sometimes dragged into summer – not an ideal situation!) Now, using an IRS Data Retrieval Tool, families will be able to match tax information from two years prior (in this case, tax year 2015) to their current-year FAFSA for the fall of 2017 – data that has already been verified, which negates the need for colleges to request additional documentation and keeps the process short. (Families who have had a drastic change in income or circumstance since 2015 can file updated information with colleges if necessary.)
- The process will continue to improve moving forward. In the 2018 school year, first-time FAFSA filers and returning college students will again be able to file their forms beginning October 1, but this time the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will pull not just prior year data from 2016, but will once more pull the data from 2015 so college financial aid officers will know if a family has a stable financial picture or if there have been changes. This process will continue in 2019 when the FAFSA will look at IRS data from 2016 and 2017; likewise in 2020, it will look at 2017 and 2018, and so on. (That’s where the term Prior-Prior Year – or PPY – comes from.) This means that financial aid officers will have much more information to work with when they package aid for students and makes the process far more transparent on both sides.
The final important piece of information I want families to keep in mind as they approach the financial aid awarding process this year is a bit of caution. Because the PPY FAFSA is new to both families and colleges, there will be inevitable growing pains associated with the change. Namely, on the college side, many financial aid offices haven’t yet formalized the timeline in which they will process FAFSA information from both returning and prospective students so some institutions might adhere to the timeline from past years in 2016-17 while others have already changed over completely to the new schedule. Check with each individual financial aid office at all of the schools you apply to this fall so you don’t miss any important deadlines.
Fall of senior year is an exciting – and, yes, nerve-wracking! – time in your life, but organized students who stay on top of both their application and financial aid deadlines will find the process of getting into college fairly straightforward and will hopefully find their way to their dream schools next fall. (And if you need help along the way, contact me or pick up a copy of my book to lend support.)