Will The Early FAFSA Get The Worm?

Beginning this fall, prospective students will be able to submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 rather than the traditional date of January 1. The change has been called "Early FAFSA," or in higher education circles "PPY," which stands for "Prior-Prior-Year."

The reason it's referred to as "prior-prior" is because students and families will be asked to use tax information from two years prior when filling out the FAFSA, rather than tax info from the year just prior.

But whatever it's called, it's one of the most significant changes to the college recruitment timeline that we've seen in a generation.

In the past, this process worked along the lines of: 1) apply for admission, usually October or November, 2) wait around to find out if you are admitted, and then 3) wait some more to find out how much it will actually cost.

While a couple of months may not seem like a big difference to many, I assure you this has the potential to be a game-changer. This change provides a framework through which colleges could provide information about final cost much earlier than in past years, resulting in students having more time to consider cost as they choose a college.

This potential alignment of final costs and the college decision timetable could be a very good thing for everyone. However, it is not a sure thing with every college, and it's important that students and parents have realistic expectations about what this change will bring.

Let's start with a few things that seem really attractive about this change:

1. Students can submit the FAFSA earlier, during a timeframe similar to their admission applications.

2. Students can learn their out-of-pocket cost for each school while exploring colleges, rather than discovering true costs at the last minute and then having to make a speedy choice.

3. Because tax information from the two years prior has already been completed and accepted by the IRS, students can use the IRS data-retrieval tool to quickly complete that information on the FAFSA, rather than using estimated tax information and then updating it later.

But, before all of those nifty things can happen, here are the things that must be in place:

1. A college or university must approve costs in the fall.

2. The federal government must update funding formulas for federal financial aid.

3. Many colleges and universities will have to offer earlier admission notification, rather than wait until late March or April to make admission decisions.

4. Colleges and universities will need to commit to making financial aid awards much earlier in the process.

These things are not assured, as some colleges and universities will not be able to adjust their admission or financial aid-awarding timetable. But for colleges able to do so, better service to students and families will come with aligning the cost conversation with the college exploration process.

Once you've successfully applied to colleges and filed the Early FAFSA, what should you do? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Pay very close attention to financial aid-related deadlines.

2. When you receive a financial aid award letter, read the small print to make sure the costs have been updated, and reflect what you will be expected to pay.

3. Ask a college how (and if) they've changed their financial aid process to ensure a student receives earlier information about cost.

4. Ask when a student will find out about admission and financial aid decisions.

Good luck to you in navigating this process.

This is one in a series of short posts in which Kent Barnds will provide honest, candid insight into the college admissions process. Watch for more "True Admissions" from Barnds, and listen to his podcasts.