FAFSA application opens earlier for 2017 aid decisions

This year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the next academic year became available in October instead of January of the beginning of the next calendar year. This allows students to file a financial aid application at the college earlier, but also means that students who have already applied for financial aid for the 2016-17 academic year will re-submit some of the same financial data for the 2017-18 application.
Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins explained that in September 2015, President Barack Obama announced this change to the FAFSA, calling the new application “the early FAFSA.”
According to the Federal Student Aid Office of the federal government, the early FAFSA is identical to the previous iterations of the application except in two ways: the timeline for the application process and the use of what Duffins called “prior prior year” income information.
The federal website states that students have been able to file a 2017–18 FAFSA since Oct. 1, 2016, rather than beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. The earlier submission date is a permanent change, enabling students to complete and submit a FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 every year. Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown explained that the early submission date allows the college to admit students and give those admitted students a financial aid package in a more timely manner.
“[Students] get accepted, but we can’t give them a good estimate of their aid until long after they’ve said yes to come here. And that hurts them … [because] they’ve pulled themselves out of the marketplace. By using October data, we can give them a good estimate of what the aid package is going to look like when they’re admitted,” Brown said.
The other major change is the use of “prior prior year” income information in the financial aid application process. In previous years, financial aid applicants used family income information from the previous year. Brown explained that this complete information will not be available in time for the earlier application process, so applicants must use the income information from the prior year in their financial aid application. The federal website explains that this means on the 2017–18 FAFSA, applicants must report their 2015 income information rather than their 2016 income information. Brown explained that this means, if a current student were to reapply for financial aid using the 2017-18 FAFSA, they would report the same income information that submitted for the 2016-17 FAFSA. This repetition of data would only occur as returning students apply for financial aid for the coming academic year in the midst of the change; it will no longer be an issue in coming academic years because the “prior prior year” data being submitted will be updated for all applicants. Financial Aid Director of Services Kristin Moore cautioned that an aid package might change because other parts of an applicant’s situation other than income may change.
“The only data that’s being repeated is the income data. The other aspects of the aid are current, which would be 2016 information,” Moore said.  
Tobin Feldman-Fitzthum ’19 praised the changes to the application process, noting that any change that makes college more accessible to low-income students should be celebrated.
“It’s important to foreground the financial aid application and show that it isn’t an afterthought. For a lot of families, finances aren’t something that they think about after their son or daughter is accepted. They’re something that’s on their mind from the very beginning of the process. It’s good that families can start filling out the FAFSA earlier in the process and submit it earlier. Hopefully, schools can use the change to start getting financial aid decisions back earlier,” he said.
However, Feldman-Fitzthum also noted that he did not think that the distribution of wealth at elite colleges has very much to do with when the FAFSA is released. Furthermore, though the process will certainly be easier for students who would have applied regardless, he was not convinced that a significant number of new low-income students will end up applying to Swarthmore because of the change.
Jacky Ye ’19, a student on financial aid, said that he was not aware of the changes, but felt that it would probably not make much of an impact on his aid decision.
“If people aren’t aware of the change, sure, people will forget and that’d probably be bad. I don’t think the changes will have a large impact overall,” he said.
Kimberly Rosa-Perez ’18, a member of Questbridge Scholars on campus, felt that moving the opening date earlier will definitely be useful for those who want to start the application early. However, she noted that Swarthmore should be active in helping students adjust to the change.
“… institutions like Swarthmore have to be willing to give workshops on how to complete FAFSA earlier as well. Otherwise, students may continue to assume that taxes need to be filed in order for them to submit their FAFSA even though that’s not the case,” she said.
The college has not mentioned plans to facilitate workshops on starting the FAFSA application early.

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