5 Burning Questions About FAFSA and Financial Aid

Help for Parents and Students Trying to Pay for College

Are you caught up in the hoopla about the “early” FAFSA? Does it seem like this new process raised more questions than ever, and provided less answers? Parents and students across the country, as well as college financial aid departments, are working their way through this process to find a new “normal” that will feel comfortable for everyone. It generally seems like everyone likes the new timeframe, but if you are counting on receiving financial aid to help pay for college, you need more answers than questions.

Here are five of the most often-asked questions about FAFSA and financial aid, and answers that might help:

  1. Should I submit my FAFSA before or after I have submitted all my college applications? Under the old timeframe, the schedule was pretty straightforward — you submitted college applications between September and December of your senior year, and then completed the FAFSA in January. Now that the FAFSA has been online since October, many families are worried about when they should complete each step of the process. Actually, that answer hasn’t changed — it has always been recommended that you file the FAFSA as early as possible. It just happens to be available a little earlier this year. If you know your college list already, it gives them the information they need to make a financial aid decision whenever they are ready. If you don’t know your colleges yet, it gets one task off your list while you finalized your choices. You can go back and add colleges to your FAFSA later.
  1. Why does the 2017-18 FAFSA use information from my 2015 tax returns? The hope is that this will make it easier for you to complete the FAFSA and for your colleges to make their final financial aid determinations. This is called prior-prior-year, or PPY, and was designed to enable more applicants to utilize the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to complete many areas of the application automatically. The families this has created difficulties for are those who experienced some major type of financial upheaval in 2016 that could impact their ability to pay for college. This will require you to contact the financial aid offices at your selected colleges and provide them with documentation regarding your current financial situation.
  1. When will I hear about my financial aid offers? That is still a work in progress. Some colleges hope to be able to provide financial aid award decisions as early as December while others are adhering to their original spring deadlines. You need to know both your application and financial aid deadlines at each school in order to make decisions that are best for you. If you are not on a specific application deadline, try to wait until you have all of your financial aid award letters before making a final determination. This will allow you to compare costs equally at all colleges.
  2. What happens if I don’t file a FAFSA at all? That is your option, and some families don’t because they assume they are not eligible for any type of financial aid. But that approach could end up costing you money or making it more difficult to obtain federal student loans if you need them. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal financial aid, some state and institutional financial aid, potential scholarships, and federal student loans. You are automatically knocking yourself out of the running for any type of aid if you choose not to file a FAFSA. If you do determine later on that you need to borrow money to pay for college, you will still have to complete a FAFSA at that point to be eligible for federal student loans.
  1. What impact does this change have on returning students? Any student hoping to receive financial aid during the 2017-18 academic year must complete the current FAFSA. For returning students, that means you will be completing two FAFSAs in 2016. It should be somewhat easier though, as it will utilize the same tax information you reported on the last FAFSA, for this year only.