Q&A: FAFSA changes for the 2017-18 award year

Student Financial Aid Director Nathan Prewett: “Students are going to be able to fill out their FAFSA a little bit earlier, and they’re going to be able to use tax information that’s already been completed.”

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is implementing new changes for the application in the upcoming filing year. Student Financial Aid Director Nathan Prewett outlined why the FAFSA is important and what changes students need to be aware of before they file the document by the priority deadline of March 1.

What is the FAFSA, and how can students access it?

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. About 99.8 percent of students now complete it online at fafsa.ed.gov. It takes an average of about 22 minutes the first time a student fills it out, and it takes about 18 minutes the second time. Those are some of the national statistics on it.

What are the upcoming changes to FAFSA?

The FAFSA is traditionally available Jan. 1, so right now we’re taking FAFSAs for the 2016/2017 award year. Our current priority date for those is the first of March, so students have a week to get that information in. We use that to package aid for students for the next academic year.

Coming down the road a little bit, though, the FAFSA is shifting back a little bit in time. Available on Oct. 1, students can start filling out the FAFSA for the 2017/2018 school year. One thing about both the FAFSA for 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 is that both years are going to use information of the 2015 tax return. It’s going to allow families to complete the FAFSA a little bit earlier during that 2017/2018 award year because everyone will have their tax information done.

For example, for this current year, our priority deadline is March 1, but families don’t have to file their taxes for 2015 until April 15. Families have always felt a little bit rushed in the past to get their information in, so shifting to the previous year is going to allow families a little bit more time. It’s also going to help prospective students. Especially those seniors in high school will have a little bit more time to determine what their aid eligibilities are.

What would you recommend students know when they are filling out the FAFSA?

It’s not complex. It’s not super hard for them to do. It really just takes a little bit of time to locate your information. Sometimes the hardest part is just doing some of the initial setup: your biographical information, choosing your ID, password. That information takes a little bit of time.

The FAFSA now allows to do what is called the IRS Data Retrieval. If you or your family have some issues getting your taxes or don’t how to translate information from the tax return to the FAFSA, you can actually import the information automatically, and it really cuts down on the processing time. It also cuts down on the total number of errors.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to the new changes to the FAFSA?

Students are going to be able to fill out their FAFSA a little bit earlier, and they’re going to be able to use tax information that’s already been completed. That’s really been a holdup for a lot of students. We’ve actually seen an increase in the number of students whose families file extensions for their tax returns. By moving the year that the FAFSA information comes from back one year, it gives families and students a lot more time to make sure their information is complete.

The only downside to it is going to be that it’s going to be using information that’s really two years old. For the 2017/2018 school year, it’s going to use information from 2015. We see a lot of families that have changes in income or changes in status or eligibility during that timeframe. As an institution, we offer what’s called a professional judgement process, so if a family loses a job or someone is laid off or someone loses a parent, we can make adjustments for those here in the office. Those students would just need to come into our office and take care of that.

How does the FAFSA intertwine with the MU Scholarship Application?

They’re two separate things. There are a number of scholarships on campus that do require financial need. The FAFSA does need to be completed so we can determine need-eligibility. Sometimes when donors set up a scholarship they require need as a component. To really determine that need, we need a FAFSA application.

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