- For the first time, the FAFSA will be available on Oct. 1; that's three months earlier. Why it's important: some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds, so the earlier families fill out the FAFSA, the better the chance to be in line for that aid. Families can get a head start on the process by creating their Federal Student Aid ID username and password at www.fafsa.gov.
- Families will use their 2015 tax information. Why it's important: This will simplify the process, as families will no longer need to estimate their taxes to complete the FAFSA, or put off completing their financial aid application until they file their 2016 taxes. Asking families to use their 2015 tax return, or what the Department of Education calls "prior-prior year" tax information, also means more families will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which saves time by importing tax information directly into the FAFSA.
- Completing the FAFSA earlier means families can receive critical information like the Student Aid Report (SAR) sooner. Why it's important: The SAR includes the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which provides a clearer picture about eligibility for financial aid as families begin applying to colleges. In addition, families who complete and submit the FAFSA soon after Oct. 1 may receive financial aid award letters from schools earlier. Timing of award letters will vary by school, so families should check with financial aid offices and school websites for more information.
In addition to understanding changes, families should always remember the following tips for completing the FAFSA:
- Gather necessary information in advance. In addition to creating a username and password — the Federal Student Aid ID — families will need Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank statements, 2015 tax returns, and W-2 forms. Having this information ready before Oct. 1 can expedite the process.
- Complete the FAFSA as a high school senior — and every year in college. Filing a new FAFSA each year is the only way to remain eligible for federal student aid, and the amount of aid could change year-over-year. In addition, nearly every student is eligible for some form of financial aid, so it's important all families complete it.
- The easiest and fastest way to fill out a FAFSA is at www.fafsa.gov . Families who complete the FAFSA online usually receive their Student Aid Report in three to five days. And remember, filing the FAFSA is free. Never pay a fee to file the FAFSA, and make sure to file at www.fafsa.gov.
- List schools on the FAFSA. Families will need to list at least one school on the FAFSA. Some state aid is based on the order of how schools are listed, so families should consider listing state schools first to be in line for state aid. Additional information, including state deadlines for completing the FAFSA, is available at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa.