The Student Financial Aid Maze: Navigating the FAFSA This Year Ahead of Big Changes in 2017-18
Jon Babcock and his 17-year-old son, Mark, dedicated around 10 hours of their recent weekend to navigating the complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and college admissions applications online. This was just the beginning of their financial aid journey, as Mark is set to graduate from North Rockland High School and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. The Babcocks, a middle-class suburban family, are aware that they can only afford to partially fund Mark’s college tuition, and his choice of school will largely depend on the financial aid he is offered.
The Babcocks face a dilemma; they may not know the exact amount of aid Mark is eligible for until later in the process, after he has already applied and been accepted to some schools. This becomes even more challenging as financial aid deadlines fall between January and March. Mark’s aid award will be determined based on his parents’ estimate of their 2015 income, since they do not have their actual tax return from that year at the time of application. As a result, they may have to go back and edit the form later on.
Jon Babcock expressed his frustration, stating that it feels like they have to fill out the form twice; once to guess and once to find out the actual amount they will receive. This process is not only frustrating for families like the Babcocks, but also for students, parents, and college administrators. However, the pain of filling out the application is minor in comparison to the anguish experienced by families struggling to gather funds for college tuition.
The Obama administration recently announced changes that aim to streamline the FAFSA process, even though they do not directly address the issue of rising college costs. Starting in the 2017-18 school year, applicants will have access to the FAFSA form from October 1, aligning it better with the overall college application timeline. Additionally, starting in 2017-18, applicants will use income information from two years prior instead of one year.
Mark will be one of the last students who undergo the current "prior year" process, while his younger sister, Grace, will benefit from the "prior prior year" process if she applies for college in 2021. This change aims to provide better financial information to help individuals make more informed decisions about where to enroll.
Karen McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of School Financial Aid Administrators, commented on the changes. She explained that the idea of changing the income year has been circulating for years, but it was only recently that the political environment allowed for it to come to fruition. The increased public concern about student loan debt and the emphasis on improving college access and affordability by presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle played a significant role in this decision. Initially, some Republican leaders resisted the changes, fearing that simplifying the form and using older income data would result in increased federal spending on higher education.
The financial aid experts are uncertain about the exact implications of these changes in terms of federal spending. However, they are confident that fraud and human error will decrease as applicants will be able to retrieve verified income data from filed and approved tax returns, which can be used to assist in completing sections of the FAFSA.
The office of Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, provides over $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds annually to more than 13 million students.
For any questions, the federal student aid office offers a monthly FAFSA chat for students and parents, with the next session scheduled for Wednesday, November 18 at 5 p.m. ET. For more information, interested individuals can find FAFSA on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo: U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced a bill in January 2015 to simplify the federal student aid application process. Prior to his political career, Bennet served as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
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