Students may be able to have more time for financial aid.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a possible change in the way students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was released on Monday. The FAFSA deadline is April 1 and acts on a first-come, first-served basis with funds that are given.
The change considers using “prior-prior year” tax data, financial information from two years ago, instead of one year ago. This change is said to help students in need receive aid and give students more time to make school decisions while preventing missed deadlines.
Craig Munier, director at the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he’s been around financial aid for more than 30 years and has been talking about using prior-prior year data for a long time.
“I think this is an idea whose time has really come,” Munier said.
As of now, students have to wait until Jan. 1 to complete the FAFSA because it requires the most recent tax data from the previous calendar year.
“Several things have been evolving and changing over time that make us want to re-evaluate that and take another look at that,” Munier said.
Along with using the prior-prior data, the change would include moving up the application date to the fall instead of January. Munier said this would create consistency, especially for high school seniors. He said they could apply for college, scholarships and financial aid and know the information around the same time.
Using older tax data has the chance of being less accurate, especially if a family catastrophe occurred that would affect finances, such as a divorce or death of a parent, Munier said. He said a special circumstances process would be in effect for situations like this when students would fill out the FAFSA, if the changes are implemented.
Cody Rader, freshman business administration major, said he didn’t complete the FAFSA until the deadline approached.
“I wasn’t really sure how to fill it out, and I eventually went to the financial aid office in my hometown and got help with it,” Rader said.
Rader said it would have been better for him to apply for the FAFSA earlier because more grants and other funds are available.
He’s indifferent to the idea of using prior-prior tax data, but he said he thinks the change may confuse some students. If the change is made, he said he hopes financial aid services would clearly explain the reason for the change and continue to help students with the FAFSA.
Munier said in the U.S., more performance-based scholarships have been offered to high school seniors in September or October. This aims to entice students early to think about choosing the school that offered them the award, and the aid typically tend to go to more financially stable families, Munier said.
He said students who need federal financial aid tend to come from middle- and lower-income families where money is a determining factor if the student goes to college at all. He said these are the students that depend on the FAFSA and have to typically wait until March or April to see how much aid they can receive.
“Ironically, the students that need to know the information earliest in today’s system find out last,” Munier said.
When students complete the FAFSA a couple of weeks after their parents’ taxes are filed, there is a delay time with the Internal Revenue Service processing the information.
Munier said using prior-prior tax information would allow more data to be available about the student’s income so the process wouldn’t take so long. He said the change would also allow students more time to decide if and where they are going to college because they can determine their financial situations earlier.
He said deadlines are important because only a certain amount of funds are available for many students, which is why Rader said it would have been better for him to apply earlier.
“I think a lot of us are starting to realize that we can simplify this process,” Munier said. “We can make this more seamless for students, we can line this process up to be more consistent with the college decision process than it is today, and for the sake of the students that we serve, I hope that we have some momentum on this time around and I hope that we can actually achieve this.”