Earlier FAFSA timeline is intended to inspire wise college choices

After decades on the same timeline, the student financial aid application process, beginning with the 2017-18 academic year, has jumped ahead -- by three months. The U.S. Department of Education's Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, became available on Oct. 1, and Iowa State is among the schools that set a Dec. 1 priority deadline to guarantee consideration for university grants, some scholarships and federal loans and work-study funds. For years, those dates were Jan. 1 and March 1, respectively.

Speaking last week at her office's annual update for the campus community, student financial aid director and 30-year student aid veteran Roberta Johnson called it a "seismic change of epic proportion."

Reminder items faculty/staff may download are on the Early FAFSA website.

The intent, she said, is to give students and families more time to consider their options and make a sound choice on a college. While the college search and application process begins earlier in students' high school careers, the financial aid piece has lagged behind, sometimes arriving too late to truly be part of the decision.

Under the [former] March 1 FAFSA filing deadline, Iowa State's award letters didn't go out until the end of March, Johnson said. By then, students may be too emotionally invested in their school of choice to be dissuaded by financial aid and cost-to-attend realities.

"The Department of Education sees this change as a financial literacy thing, that students will make wiser financial decisions about where they're going to school," Johnson said. "Letting students know earlier what resources will be available to pay for college is critical. This enables several months of conversations (Feb. 1-May 1) with those families we couldn't have before."

Johnson said a related goal is to help reduce the amount of borrowing students take on to pay for school.

Iowa State uses a rolling admission process, with would-be freshmen receiving a response to their admissions applications within two business days. Nationally, May 1 is the date by which many schools ask their pool of accepted students to accept or decline the offer. Iowa State uses it as the refund deadline for students who earlier accepted an admissions offer and change their minds.

Spread the word, please

Johnson asked faculty and staff to help spread the word about the new FAFSA timeline to their students, but also to friends, neighbors and relatives who have, or next year will have, children in college. Two audiences she's especially concerned about reaching are:

  • Families whose first child will enter college in the fall of 2017 and who may not be far enough along in their college search to be informed about the financial aid application process
  • Families who haven't had a college student for a year or two and who think they know the drill -- but don't, if they're operating on the old FAFSA timeline

On its Early FAFSA website, the student financial aid office offers promotional items faculty and staff can use to help spread the word. These include small posters, an informational "cheat sheet" and other suggestions. Office staff also will hold 10 more "File Your FAFSA" days in 0210 Beardshear through mid-November to help current ISU students begin their FAFSA applications. The remaining sessions are:

  • 8-11 a.m.: Oct. 14, Oct. 17, Nov. 1
  • 9-11 a.m.: Nov. 7
  • 1-4 p.m.: Oct. 11, Oct. 24, Nov. 15, Nov. 16
  • 2-4 p.m.: Oct. 19, Nov. 10

For the 2014-15 academic year, 75 percent of Iowa State's undergraduates filed a FAFSA and about three-fourths of applicants showed financial need.

Making FAFSA easier

Two other changes that take effect this fall are intended to improve the FAFSA application's reputation for being a laborious effort:

  • Families will use income information from a year earlier than in the past. For example, FAFSA applicants for the 2017-18 school year will provide their 2015 data, which was due to the IRS on April 15, 2016. This is intended to cut down on FAFSA application delays because families haven't filed their tax documents yet. Families experiencing significant income swings during the two years can report this through a special review.
  • The FAFSA document contains a data retrieval tool that will import relevant income information from the Internal Revenue Service. Johnson expects that most families will be able to use this tool, though not all. For example, filers with amended tax returns (1040X) won't.

What happens after Dec. 1

Families with students applying to college still may file their FAFSA after Dec. 1, but the "free" money -- grants and scholarships -- gets awarded quickly. Johnson said her target date to start mailing award letters to incoming freshmen (those who have applied and been accepted) is Jan. 28, 2017. She recommends that departments adopt a Dec. 1 or Jan. 1 application deadline for their scholarships to be included in the award letters. The ISU Foundation's scholarship projection report for 2017-18 also will come out earlier this year, sometime during the first week in November, Johnson said.

Fall 2017 incoming transfer students will receive their award letters from Iowa State in early March and returning students by mid-April, she said.