Next Steps on FAFSA

The Obama administration's FAFSA changes generate support -- and a few questions -- from colleges and financial aid experts.

September 15, 2015

Plenty of questions remain unanswered after the White House announced Sunday a rejiggering of when and how students apply for federal financial aid.

Starting in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available earlier, in October rather than January, and applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year.

In less than 24 hours, dozens of universities -- including the University of California system, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Loyola University Maryland -- committed to realigning their own institutional financial aid applications to use the “prior-prior year” data. And more university commitments are on the way, said the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), an organization that has pushed for this change for years.

Effects of the policy shift will be wide reaching, even for colleges that haven’t opted to change their financial aid applications. But until the government releases more specific information, many are stuck in a holding pattern.

“There are more questions than answers now,” said NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger. Those questions, he said, include what the new deadlines will be, exactly (when in October?), and if certain students will need to reapply or submit new or different information. “Until they release that information, we will be a little hamstrung with implementation," he said.

Answers to those questions will raise new ones. How will this affect a college’s budget cycle or its recruitment targets? What about the deadlines and timelines for state aid agencies and legislatures? The necessary changes to information management systems could pose challenges, too. “A lot of the time you think these things will be simple, but it can have pretty far-reaching effects,” Draeger said.

During the first year of implementation, for example, the shuffled deadlines could see recruitment offices ending one student recruitment season only to come right up against the next one. “I think that’s going to pose some challenges, going into next year, trying to juggle those things,” Draeger said. “Not insurmountable challenges. Just challenges.”

Despite all that, NASFAA and many of its members are supportive of and eager to make the changes, which, they say, will simplify and streamline the financial aid application process and give students more information earlier.

“One of the biggest concerns families express is they apply for admission in the fall or in some cases in earlier winter and [they] don’t have a financial aid decision by April,” said Mark Lindenmeyer, assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of financial aid at Loyola University Maryland. “It doesn’t give them as much time to make that decision.”

These changes “will allow us to include need-based financial aid decisions with the admission decision,” Lindenmeyer said. “I think across the board it makes the process easier for all families.”

Another outstanding question is whether more institutions like Loyola, which uses the College Board’s College Scholarship Service Profile for its institutional financial aid applications, will adopt the prior-prior year change. CSS collects data from the three previous years but relies most heavily on the prior year’s information. Not requiring prior year data on the FAFSA application, but requiring it on the college’s own application, could raise eyebrows.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, as you can imagine, on how colleges that use the profile will proceed,” Lindenmeyer said. “My hope is those colleges will align with prior-prior year. It just makes more sense.”

Whether the College Board itself opts to change CSS to align with the federal government's changes to FAFSA also remains to be seen. The College Board did not comment on Monday.

And some among the colleges and organizations that are supportive of the change have raised concerns.

“Some people express concern that schools will start pressing students to make commitments earlier than they already do,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Others are worried their colleges could be put at a competitive disadvantage if their budget cycle doesn’t allow them to announce aid packages earlier than other colleges.

“As we’ve looked at these issues, we’re certainly acknowledging them as concerns, and we will continue to pay close attention,” Hawkins said. But over all, Hawkins said, he and many of his organization's members are still excited about the change.

“When students have better information, they’ll make better decisions,” said Hawkins.


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