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Headache-Saving Changes Are Here

Recent changes to the financial aid process are making it easier than ever to apply for help and plan ahead for college.

As of October 1, 2016, students can now file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2017-18 year. This pushes the application date up by several months from the current January 1 opening date. Students will also use tax information from two years earlier. Therefore, when filing the 2017-2018 FAFSA application, students will use 2015 tax information.

Why is this important?

Filling out a FAFSA is the first step in getting federal money, including Pell Grants, student loans, and a work-study job at your college. The information on your FAFSA is also used by colleges, state governments, and others to determine if you qualify for some other types of financial aid or scholarships.

Nearly 20 million FAFSA filers get access to federal grants and loans each year – the vast majority of American college students. Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.

“The biggest mistake you can make with federal aid is assuming you don’t qualify, so even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible, you should apply,” says Rose Bancroft, Director of Financial Aid at Suffolk County Community College.

Many students qualify for the Pell Grant, which is money that you do not have to pay back. Students can also access loans, which do have to be repaid, at lower interest rates than many private lenders offer.

According to education advising site Edvisors.com, two million students who would have qualified for the Pell Grant in the 2011-12 school year missed out because they didn’t fill out a FAFSA.

More time to weigh options

By applying in October instead of January, students will find out earlier if they are eligible for aid, giving them time to consider college costs and weigh their options for multiple schools.

The convenience of using so-called “prior-prior-year” tax data also makes it easier for students to get college applications in before many scholarship deadlines, which are frequently set in January and February.

This expanded window of time will enable families to determine the true costs of going to school, once financial aid is factored in.

Streamlined process

The changes simplify the FAFSA a great deal. Students who apply early won’t have to update their applications with new income information, cutting down the often rigorous federal verification process.

The FAFSA is far less of a headache than it used to be. Once upon a time (not so long ago), filing for financial aid involved a 10-page workbook and poring over your family’s paper documents. Today, less than one-half of one percent of applicants fill out the paper version.

Now an online form at fafsa.ed.gov, many of the application’s 108 questions are auto-populated using data already on-file with the government through the IRS.

According to the Education Department, this has cut the filing time down to about 20 minutes, on average.

How to apply

Complete a FAFSA online at fafsa.ed.gov.

After filing, you will be sent a report on your eligibility for the Pell Grant and the amount you can expect to receive.

If you are seeking a loan and are a first time borrower, log on to studentloans.gov and complete an Entrance Interview and a Master Promissory Note. Completion of these tasks will expedite your award.

– Mary M. Feder

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