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Early FAFSA - What You Need to Know Today

by sandyadviser
10/03/16 Bookmark
sandyadviser

Sandy Jimenez has been a College Access Counselor at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center since 2000. In 2006, she helped design the first iteration of the Options Institute’s Foundation Course for College Access and Success Counselors. She has worked individually with over 500 students and trained thousands of professionals. Most recently, Sandy has joined NYC College Line as a Senior Adviser, where you can reach her through the Ask an Adviser feature. 

Fafsa_2016_pig_image_courtesy_getlenny

UPDATE:  Check out Sandy's video about early FAFSA too.
Sandy's Early FAFSA Video

For about a year now, we’ve known that there were changes coming to the FAFSA. Throughout the year, we’ve been bombarded with information about what the changes are and how they will impact our work and our students. It’s a lot!

Let’s boil it down to what the changes are and what action steps we should take.

The Change

Mark your calendars! Moving forward, the FAFSA will be available on October 1. Hence, we’re calling it Early FAFSA. The FAFSA that comes out on October 1, 2016 will be used to apply for aid for the academic year 2017-2018. In case you haven’t noticed, Oct 1 is this Saturday!

Also, moving forward, the FAFSA will reference the Prior-Prior Year’s taxes. This is called PPY. For example, this year’s FAFSA will look at the 2015 taxes which are from two years before (prior-prior) academic year 2017-2018. 

It’s important to note that only questions about income information will be referencing 2015. Questions about Adjusted Gross Income and Child Support will be about 2015. Other questions will be about the family’s current status or even their status during the academic year 2017-2018. For example, household size is about the size during the upcoming academic year and marital status is about “as of today.” Check out this chart for more information about the timeframe used to answer different questions on the Early FAFSA: https://www.nasfaa.org/ppy_fafsa.

You can imagine that a lot of confusion will arise from all of the different timeframes. This is not completely different from the traditional FAFSA but the confusion will be accentuated due to the two-years we now have between taxes and the academic year. You might encounter students with big changes in their household since 2015. Parents may have remarried or gotten divorced. Household members may have passed away or been born since then. Be sure to read the help screen as you help students complete the FAFSA and you should be able to get most questions answered. If you’re stuck, contact one of NYC College Line’s expert advisers at www.nyccollegeline.org. (Mega plug, baby!)

What Colleges Are Saying

As an adviser, I’ve been waiting to react to the changes colleges were making. It’s not as important that the FAFSA is available on October 1, if colleges keep their financial aid priority deadlines in January and February. As an adviser or student, I would be able to take my time. If colleges change their deadlines to October 15, I really need to rush my own timeline.

At Options and many other places across the city, we’ve been trying to figure out the changes colleges are making in reaction to Early FAFSA. To be honest, it’s been hard to get the answers we need. Looking at it from the college perspective, they’ve had about a year to prepare for this. The announcement for these changes came out in the middle of recruitment season, and in the midst of acclimating new and old students to a new school year. Understandably, a year hasn’t been long enough for many of those on the other side of the desk. It’s no wonder that we’re all still figuring it out.

A few things cannot change. NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) member institutions cannot set a fall application deadline for regular admission before October 15. They also cannot require students to commit to attending their institution prior to May 1. Those dates are set by NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice, which all member institutions agree to.

Most colleges have gone on record as saying that they will not be making any changes to their admission or financial aid deadlines.  In fact, the Federal Department of Education has asked colleges to provide packages or estimates early without changing their financial aid deadlines. Many of the colleges we have spoken to have said they are taking a “wait and see” approach. This means that they will make changes that will affect current juniors based on how things go with current seniors. So there are potentially more changes in store!

Some colleges have announced changes to their admission and financial aid priority deadlines publicly, such as Columbia University (for early decision applicants) and SUNY Fredonia (for opportunity program applicants). Through conversations with colleagues we’ve also found out about other colleges that have changed at least their financial aid priority deadlines, including several SUNY colleges. Some deadlines are as early as December.

One thing is for sure: New York State Opportunity Programs fill up quickly and are often on a first come, first served timeline. While few colleges have officially changed their opportunity program deadlines, at Options, we’re feeling most pressed to have opportunity program eligible students complete the FAFSA early.

Why?

You might wonder why the changes. Folks have been fighting for years to simplify the FAFSA. Part of the story is that, historically, finances don’t change significantly from year to year. Additionally, using prior-prior year taxes means that students don’t have to wait for their parents to file taxes before they can finalize their FAFSA. This means students aren’t missing out on precious aid due to missed deadlines.

Referring to PPY taxes also means that more people can use the IRS Data Retrieval tool (IRS DRT) which cuts down on verification. The Early FAFSA wording places a special focus on getting as many people to use the IRS DRT as possible.

A big effort with the Early FAFSA, is to give families a longer time to consider financial aid packages. If everything goes according to plan, low-income families especially will have time to shop around for the best deal and make an informed decision about what college to attend.

FAFSA Leads the Way

Now that FAFSA has gone Early and PPY, what are the financial aid forms doing?

College Board’s CSS Financial Aid Profile (the Profile) will also be going PPY. The Profile has always been available in October. Moving forward, it will be available on October 1. As usual it will reference three years but, in PPY-style, 2015 will be the base year and most questions will be about that year. The years 2016 and 2017 will also be highlighted briefly.

TAP will also go PPY! It will be available on October 1 and reference 2015. HESC has gone on record with the recommendation that students complete the TAP application early so they can deal with any verification issues in a timely manner. Students must still complete the FAFSA before accessing the TAP.

Don’t be surprised if some colleges send out institutional aid forms and even request 2016 taxes. I would especially expect this from schools with large endowments.

Early FAFSA Action Steps

Below are my suggestions about what you need to do now that you know what Early FAFSA is. First of all, don’t freak out. There is plenty of work to do.

1.       Spread the Word

Remember that this is your seniors’ first time filing the FAFSA. Most won’t know that it’s different this year. The difference doesn’t need to be the focus. Recommend that students include financial aid priority deadlines as part of their college research. Also, gently push them to complete their FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. I don’t think you need to rush students to complete their forms on October 1 or even October 15. I would shoot for mid-November. The earlier students complete the FAFSA, the longer they have to respond to verification requests. Lastly, alert them to be on the lookout for additional forms and information requests from colleges.

2.       Start Early

I get it! You’re in it now but next time around, it would be great to start prepping before junior year so seniors can be ready to complete the FAFSA in the fall. Talking about college early would be great. Developing a final college list in junior year even better. Work on determining who’s eligible to file the FAFSA in junior year. Since the FAFSA refers to PPY, you can gather tax documents in junior year. Students can apply for an FSA ID in junior year too. You can even have your financial aid nights in junior year.

If you didn’t get started in junior year, focus on doing things a little earlier. If you typically had your FAFSA nights in February, you should consider doing them in November. Earlier is best. NCAN (National College Access network) recommends doing “once and done” events where students complete admission applications and the FAFSA. You could do a CUNY and FAFSA night!

3.       Do your Research

It can be daunting to have to research what all the colleges in the United States will be doing this fall. There’s like 4,000 of them! Choose a handful of the most popular schools among your students and find out their financial aid priority deadline. This deadline is important for institutional aid as well as federal aid like work-study. Don’t let your students miss out!

4.       Pay Attention and Advocate

Keep your ears open for students that may need additional attention. Maybe it’s too much to focus on getting your whole senior class to complete the FAFSA by November but focusing on the right kids can be helpful. Seek out students who had big changes in their household like marriage or divorce or whose parent became unemployed. It will be more difficult to represent their finances accurately on the FAFSA. These cases may also require advocacy. Focus on students applying to places with earlier priority deadlines or to opportunity programs.

5.       Find partners

The fall is a busy time of year. Acknowledged. It may be too much to do everything you already do in the fall and now we’re adding Early FAFSA too. Work on passing the buck! Invite someone to do your financial aid workshops. Partner up with a college, community based organization, or alumni to run your early workshops. You can also refer your students to any number of events going on around the city. Start by checking out College Goal Sunday (https://collegegoalny.org/) which is now happening in the fall and SUNY Financial Aid Days (https://www.suny.edu/attend/events/) in October and November. Check out NYC College Line for an updated list of FAFSA events.

6.       Keep Track of Changes and Completion

My most successful colleagues keep track of everything on a spreadsheet. This occasion calls for two. One to keep track of college priority deadlines and required forms, and another to keep track of which of your students has completed the FAFSA. Make it a Google Doc if you want others to help you keep track.

Your school or organization can also create an account with the NYS FAFSA Completion Initiative at hesc.ny.gov. This is an additional way to keep track of who’s completed their forms.

Access information and resources for Early FAFSA at financialaidtoolkit.ed.gov. You can do a demo FAFSA and download screenshots for FAFSA night.

7.       Don’t Forget

Completing the FAFSA is not enough. Remind students to complete requests for verification promptly and to follow up often with colleges to make sure they have all necessary documents. Encourage students to update their school list on the FAFSA every time they complete an application (i.e. CUNY, SUNY, and Common App).

Don’t forget to inform your alumni! While returning student deadlines are usually later in the year, it is important to let your alumni know that there is change a coming for FAFSA.

8.       Use your Time Wisely

In an ideal world, your senior class will be done with college and financial aid applications before winter break. You could potentially have extra time to spend to spend on some other important items. You could spend more time helping students decipher financial aid packages and support them in their final college decision making.

You could reach out to alumni and help them with their FAFSA.

Why don’t you step up your transition game? Maybe you’ve been meaning to do more programming around the transition from high school to college. This is your year! Focus on some of the soft skills like self-advocacy or bring someone from a local college to talk about what to expect. There is so much!

You can use your time to start early with juniors. After your experience this fall, I’m sure you’ll want to!

I hope you find this information helpful. Respond to this entry by adding your recommendations and experiences with Early FAFSA. I can’t wait to hear!

*Image courtesy of www.GetLenny.com

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