White House Announces Easier, Earlier FAFSA

Students and their parents received good news Tuesday, when the Obama administration announced plans for an earlier and easier Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the gatekeeper for students seeking postsecondary financial aid.

This 100-question application typically becomes available in January, after students have already applied to schools. This means many students may be accepted by a college prior to knowing how much financial assistance they are eligible for. Under the new plan, the FAFSA would be released in October.

As expected, some have expressed excitement over the recent announcement. Margaret Feldman, director of college advising for the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, Va. — who is based out of T.C. Williams High School — says that under the old system, “students were coming in, seniors who had just graduated, who still did not have a financial aid award letter.”

“They’d committed to a school,” Feldman told NPR, “and in August, they still didn’t know how much they were going to have to pay.”

Under the new time line, this scenario is less likely to happen.

In addition to earlier, the FAFSA will soon become easier to fill out.

“There’s a new IRS data-retrieval tool where parents and students can log onto the IRS through FAFSA, and it will pre-populate much of the form,” Rachel Fishman, who studies education policy at New America, told NPR.

However, because the FAFSA requires parents’ tax information from the previous year and some 4 million students apply for aid each year before their families’ taxes have been filed, this tool has been unable to help students. But, beginning in October 2016, this will change. The FAFSA will switch to requiring parents’ tax information from the “prior-prior” year instead, making the form less time-consuming to fill out.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he expects the changes will lead to hundreds of thousands of additional students applying for federal Pell Grants.

The announcement of these changes to the FAFSA comes on the heels of another big education push from the White House — the release of its “College Scorecard,” an online system that helps students and their families make informed decisions about college. Read more here.