FAFSA Changes: Effect on College Access
On September 14 President Obama announced changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process that will have a dramatic impact on the college access community next fall. In its current format the FAFSA is a form that depends on tax returns from the prior year, meaning students and families need to wait until taxes are filed, around January of the senior year of high school.
Starting October 1, 2016, students will be able to file a FAFSA using tax returns from prior-prior year, i.e., the tax season that just ended on April 15 of that year.
What are the practical implications of this monumental change?
- FOR SCHOOLS AND COLLEGE ACCESS PROGRAMS
The college application process can now take place at one time rather than being segmented into fall admission and spring FAFSA. High schools and community-based college access programs can focus their college-going messages on a fall push during which students complete all steps in the process.
- FOR FAMILIES
Families can use electronic data from their tax return on the FAFSA form, eliminating guesswork and reducing error. Parents no longer need to rush to get their taxes completed so their students can qualify for good aid packages.
- FOR STUDENTS
By understanding their financial aid eligibility in the fall, high school seniors can make much more informed decisions about postsecondary education, including whether a specific schools or program fits in the family budget.
Arizona students can usually find ample FAFSA assistance in school and in the community. High school counselors are good resources, and often have the assistance of career coaches, AVID teachers, and college financial aid experts for family-oriented FAFSA events at the school. Arizona is also home to college access centers in Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Flagstaff, and Tucson, along with a network of nonprofits who specialize in college access. In short, there is a vast support system for students who are searching for ways to finance their education beyond high school. And starting next fall, that system gets a little bit better. There is still work to be done to simplify the FAFSA process and increase access for low-income families, but the move to prior-prior year is a major step forward for students, families, and the college access programs that support them.
Linda Jensen is the director of the Arizona College Access Network, a community of more than 200 college access and success programs across the state who are dedicated to postsecondary success for all Arizonans, especially low-income, first-generation students.