The Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) will be undergoing substantial policy changes that will take effect during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In response to persistent criticisms against the national aid-granting process, President Obama announced on Sept. 14 that significant adjustments would be made to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, a document that is submitted by millions of Americans each year.
Of the changes that are being put in place, the most notable is the proposal that will not only allow students to submit a FAFSA earlier, but also allow students to submit older income information, according to the FSA website.
Under current policies, students are required to wait until Jan. 1 for the release of the form before they are able to fill out their tax information and submit their application, which has been a longstanding criticism of the process.
The new form, however, will allow students to file their FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 and report their income information from an earlier tax year.
“Because the way the calendar used to work, the FAFSA was coming in on Jan. 1 and, by that time, people probably hadn’t done their taxes yet so there was a lot of estimating going on,” Douglas Zander, director of admissions for the university, said. “On the backend of that, a lot of verifications had to then happen from the financial aid office side of things.”
In addition to these changes, the updated FAFSA will also see a plunge in asset protection. Previously, when parents would report their financial information, a portion of their assets, which included savings and investment funds, would be shielded from the federal government’s assessment of the applicant.
The new system will reduce this portion of protected income to allow for middle and lower income students to receive higher federal aid awards than they would otherwise qualify for.
“Education is expensive and this will really benefit students from lower and middle income households who really struggle because there has been less [aid] available for them,” Zander said.
The FAFSA will also change its policies involving student privacy, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In the past, when students would file their FAFSA, they would choose a maximum of 10 colleges to receive their financial details. The admissions offices from those universities would then be able to see the other colleges attached to the mailing list. Beginning with the 2016-2017 application, however, universities will lose that insight.
“When other colleges offer aid to students, a lot of schools will ask to see the letter they got and attempt to match it,” Zander said. “We don’t do that. We put our best offer first, which is kind of what everybody is going to be doing with this process now.”
With the increasing financial burdens associated with attending a university, the primary hope is that these changes to the FAFSA will allow for students and their families to better plan on how they will be paying for school.
“Any time students and parents can have clearer information about enrollment, it’s a good thing,” Chris Lucier, vice president for enrollment management, said.
For the most part, administrators and students both agree that these changes will have far-reaching, positive effects on the application process on both ends.
“I wish they had this system when I was applying for school,” sophomore Sarah Downie said. “There’s so much going on as a senior in high school already. It’s the kind of thing where even a little help can go a long way.”
While the Obama administration has taken long strides in simplifying the FAFSA for students through the development of the IRS income information accessibility tool and condensing the online form, many recognize that there there is still more work that needs to be done.
The FAFSA, however, is not the only reason certain families are having increased difficulty in committing to a university.
“One of the difficulties is that the cost of education is high so part of what admissions offices are doing throughout the fall is putting messaging out there to help families understand what the return on investment is going to be,” Zander said. “That way, by the time they get their financial aid package, they will already have been thinking about what they can get in the long term.”