How Are Families Responding to the New FAFSA Schedule?

An Earlier FAFSA Might Make Planning Easier

The October FAFSA availability has impacts that are rippling throughout the college and high school student, parent, and college admission office worlds. Many high school seniors and their parents rushed to fill out the application and were pleasantly surprised that using their 2015 income tax information made the process so much easier. Current college students might have been caught unaware that they need to fill out two FAFSAs in one year, for one time only.

The good news for them is that they can also use their 2015 tax information, which they have already submitted, so it should be much easier this time around. And some financial aid offices have announced that they will be sending their award letters out earlier than ever, to give potential students a better opportunity to compare financial aid offers.

The one area that has been a little murky in this whole process, however, is trying to discern how parents and students are going to react in terms of applying for and accepting college financial aid. This is the unknown “X” factor in the conversation surrounding the process of applying to college. Until now, most evidence has been anecdotal. The earlier FAFSA appears to be going well, and colleges seem to like receiving their applications in a more timely fashion. But is there any real evidence to back up these theories?

The answer is yes. Royall & Company, a division of EAB, released the results of a study entitled, "November 2016 Flash Poll: Early FAFSA/ISIR Activity," which shows that students who will be starting college in the fall of 2017 are definitely taking advantage of the Early FAFSA filing date.

Their real-time data revealed that the schools which participated in the study had already received nearly one-third of the total FAFSA filings by December as they received for the last financial aid application period, and no school had received less than 20 percent of their last year’s total. The results are even more dramatic for private colleges and universities, as students are anxious to determine whether they have the financial wherewithal to attend these institutions.

Other insights uncovered in the study include:

  • Financial Aid Awards: As hoped, the data confirmed that 57 percent of the responding schools were projecting that they would be able to notify students of need-based financial aid awards at least two to eight weeks earlier than usual, and 30 percent said they actually intended to include need-based assistance offers in their admissions letters. This should be a tremendous help to families struggling to make decisions that will impact their financial future.
  • Schools May Be Moving Up Their Application Schedules: The survey found that those schools which promoted heavily during the summer months were more likely to receive increased application and FAFSA responses. This could be important for this year’s high school juniors who are already ramping up their college selection efforts. They may need to adjust their college search process accordingly so they are ready to complete the application process earlier in 2017.
  • The Early Bird May Win the Day: Going back to the old saying of “he who hesitates is lost” might be even truer in applying for financial aid. This research is based on actual student and parent actions, not some projection or wish list about what “should” happen. It is becoming much clearer that early application, early FAFSA, early financial aid awards, and early decisions might be the new normal in applying to college.

    Although the basic elements are still the same, it is highly evident that the early FAFSA is indeed having an impact on students and their parents. This year’s class of high school seniors is paving a new path for their younger brethren to rethink their actions, and adapt their college application strategies. Now, instead of anxiously waiting to fill out a FAFSA in January, most of the college application work can be completed by that time. Students and parents can then take time to study financial aid award letters, compare offers, apply for scholarships, and make sound financial decisions based on actual information, not assumptions.