A Game Changer for Financial Aid

Allowing applicants for financial aid to use income information from two-year-old tax returns, instead of only the prior year's, is a big win for students, says W. Kent Barnds.

September 17, 2015

Most previous efforts to introduce transparency to college financial aid have not resulted in their intended changes. But a new policy that the White House announced this past Sunday has been described as a game changer. And it is.

Beginning 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 students will be able to use income information from tax returns completed two years before they apply rather than the previous year. Allowing students to use this so-called prior-prior year (PPY) income data for the FAFSA moves the financial aid process forward in unprecedented ways.

When I began my career in admissions 24 years ago, my standard spiel included the following line: “Don’t rule out any college because of its sticker price, because you have no idea how much any college will cost until you apply, get admitted, and hear about scholarships and financial aid.” That line is just as relevant today, despite the changing landscape for higher education and admissions.

It has not been the most reassuring statement for students, and it has assumed a leap of faith from many families that we’ve not yet earned. But it has represented the reality of the college search and selection process. That reality has opened colleges and universities up to criticism that we are being elusive about cost and price and have not been providing the transparency we should to close the deal on a four-year partnership with students and families.

It has been a problematic aspect of the college search and selection process, but one on which work has continued to be done, with varying levels of success, to introduce simplicity and clarity.

First, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s mandated Net Price Calculator (NPC). But unfortunately, the NPC has done nothing to address the wait-and-see approach to paying for college. Instead, the NPC simply added another layer of complication and estimation that does nothing to provide the kind of insight we had hoped to give students, simplify the process of applying for financial aid or help families coming to terms with final cost of an advanced degree. (The truth is that, for many colleges, the NPC added more administrative costs, which are passed along to students.)

The Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have also called for simplifying the FAFSA as the solution. But higher education and the financial aid world seem to have only lukewarm support for making the FAFSA easier, because it could be oversimplified to the point that it is no longer useful or accurate. And some people predict that such efforts will lead more colleges to use more customized institutional forms or adopt other standardized applications for financial aid like the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.

This spring the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators issued a report about implementing prior-prior year income data for the FAFSA and some of the implications. Are there concerns and uncertainties about it? Yes. Will this force colleges and universities to change? Yes. Will traditional admissions practices be impacted? Yes. Will other enrollment professionals and I have to get creative to respond to a new admissions calendar? Yes.

Yet, despite those uncertainties and concerns, PPY, a truly student-centered solution, is ultimately good for the college search and selection process and the feds should be commended for this forward-thinking simplification of the financial aid process. Most important, will it simplify processes for families and make our complex system a bit easier for them to navigate? Undoubtedly.

Some of the major benefits include:

PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA much earlier. Instead of waiting until Jan. 1, after college applications have mostly been submitted, the financial aid application process now will align more closely with timelines for the traditional application process. PPY relies on tax returns and information completed before the senior year, so aid awards can be given much earlier in the recruitment and admissions process, consequently providing students and their families with valuable information about cost earlier.

Some within higher education circles will complain that this new timeline may result in more “shopping” by families from institution to institution, but I can’t imagine it being any worse than it is already. Imagine being able to provide real-time financial aid information to a student when they are most excited about your college, rather than telling them they have to jump through a bunch of hoops and then wait weeks, or even months.

PPY will allow most students to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. PPY would be a dream come true for those who advocate for simplicity. The Data Retrieval Tool, which is one of more positive developments that we’ve seen to improve the financial aid process in recent years, could be used to complete a FAFSA more accurately and with greater ease.

Moreover, since the FAFSA and financial aid award time frames have not kept pace with that of the college search, using PPY would eliminate the estimating that inevitably leads to confusion, delays and other potential problems in the financial aid process. PPY would also be friendlier to family-owned businesses and those students with complicated tax situations, often requiring extensions beyond April 15 for tax filing -- which does not allow some families to complete accurate tax information during what is now known as financial aid season. And since universal college decision day is May 1, these families often have to make a college choice without all of the necessary information.

PPY will result in more students accessing aid for which they are eligible. Because PPY relies on existing tax information and a new FAFSA could be populated using the Data Retrieval Tool, it has the potential to be more inviting for students who are turned off by the perceived complexity of the FAFSA and therefore opt not to complete it. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for these students to apply for and actually receive aid for which they are eligible, instead of having them opt out and ultimately miss out?

These students are likely to take out student loans to pay for college or perhaps take a semester off to earn tuition money -- only never to return. PPY is about access and choice, which are two of the most important defining qualities of the U.S. higher education system. Everyone should be excited about the prospect of greater accessibility to a college degree and realistic choices for paying for it.

If our goals are to provide earlier information about cost, to simplify the application process and to increase access to higher education and to financial aid available, then PPY -- regardless of the potential complications and anxiety for public policy makers and higher education professionals -- is one of the most important changes to the financial aid process in a generation. And, for me, it’s a great development because it is a win for students.


Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.


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