Students around the country will soon benefit from what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called an earlier and easier Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to a Sept. 13White House announcementon the change.
Starting late next year, students will be allowed to apply for federal student aid based on their family’s income from two years earlier instead of the previous year, Inside Higher Ed reported. Additionally, the Obama administration plans to change the federal aid process so that students can submit their FAFSA as early as October for the school year beginning the following summer or fall, instead of having to wait until January to submit.
University Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Robin Moscato said the changes in the FAFSA are a great improvement all-around. Moscato noted that using "prior-prior" year reduces the complexity of the FAFSA for students and families.
"It's preferable to get the FAFSA earlier. It's preferable to use the prior-prior year because it's the only way to reduce the complexity of the FAFSA," Moscato said.
She explained that using prior-prior year makes the FAFSA available to schools much earlier than it was available before, which will make the FAFSA available to schools with early admission programs as well as schools with regular action programs. This will allow schools with early admission programs to notify students about their financial aid packages along with their admissions decisions.
Moscato said the FAFSA reforms will not increase the volume of financial aid applications to the University.
“We’ve always required the FAFSA as part of the financial aid application, but our primary application form is the Princeton Financial Aid Application, which is our own web-based financial aid application,” she explained. "The FAFSA is used exclusively for determining eligibility for federal financial aid, which is an important part of what we do but isn’t as central to Princeton’s financial aid program as it might be at other schools, since the vast majority of our aid is from our own university aid sources."
When asked how the changes will affect the University, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye deferred comment to Moscato.
Moscato described the general reaction to the reforms as positive.
"We’re glad that steps are being taken to reduce the complexity of the FAFSA,” Moscato said."This is not just for Princeton. Nationally, it’s important to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid, particularly for schools that use the FAFSA almost exclusively. We’ve been able to make it easier to apply for aid at Princeton by developing our own form, but not every school can do that."
She said she does not expect the reforms to change significantly who receives federal financial aid. The reliance on an earlier tax year will not make much of a difference for most families, so her office does not anticipate a big shift in federal aid eligibility at the University, Moscato added.
Many experts say that these changes will streamline the financial aid process, making the choice of college easier for many students and their families.
Traditionally, students apply to colleges in the fall, but apply for financial aid in January. This puts applicants in the difficult position of potentially accepting a college's offer before knowing how much financial aid that college will give them.
The FAFSA’s being based upon two years of income instead of just one will make the process easier, experts say. The Internal Revenue Service has the ability to fill out much of the FAFSA for families, but, since the FAFSA requires parents' tax information from the prior year, and about four million students apply for aid each year before their families' taxes have been filed, the IRS tool can't help them. Using two years of income will allow the IRS to be able to utilize the IRS-retrieval tool so that much of students’ FAFSA will be automatically filled out.
According to an NPR report, Duncan said Monday morning in a press release that he expects the changes will lead to hundreds of thousands of additional students applying for federal Pell grants, though he said the costs were very minor.
Duncan did not respond to a request for comment.
Stephen Payne, the federal relations associate for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the NASFAA has studied what moving to prior-prior year for the FAFSA could mean in the USA for over two years, even publishing a report in 2013 with support from the Gates Foundation. Reforms, he said, could have enormous implications for students nationwide.
“What we found in our study was that there wasn’t too much impact in their awards, and so moving to a prior-prior year system would then allow students and families more time to consider their options when it comes to financing their college education,” Payne said.
Payne said that if more students have an opportunity to fill out the FAFSA and know rather than estimate their information, the country will likely see more participation in the financial aid process. But whether this hope will come to fruition remains to be seen, he added.
For students that are already enrolled in college, the changes to the FAFSA may not significantly improve the financial aid process.
Chance Fletcher ’18, a student whose family owns a small construction-support industry business, explained that the earlier submission dates for the FAFSA will not have much of an effect on his family. As small business owners, his parents file their taxes later than many other families. While salary earners in many families receive their pay from an employer, Fletcher's families income depends upon its own business's revenue sources.
Fletcher explained that his family receives revenue and tax information later than, for example, income streams from someone employed by a third-party employer. As such, the October instead of January FAFSA submission date will not affect his financial aid process, Fletcher explained. His family has always needed to wait until after the FAFSA's prior release date of January to submit the FAFSA, and the earlier October release date of the FAFSA will therefore have no effect on when his family submits its FAFSA.
“As a student who submits a FAFSA, I appreciate the efforts of the federal government to make the process easier,” Katie Kubala ’18 said, but she also noted that she would have to wait until next year to see if the changes have any great effect on her financial aid process.