Last year’s big news about college affordability was the new deadline for the FAFSA, the form most colleges require students to complete in order to receive help paying for college. By opening the FAFSA filing period on , students and parents can now apply for college and financial aid at the same time. This is aided tremendously by another change, where parents filing for aid can now use the tax information they’ve already submitted to the IRS—so no more waiting for forms that never seem to come.
Early FAFSA is now in its second year, and high school counselors are ready to help families apply for college help with even stronger Paying for College programs and FAFSA completion events. At the same time, some things haven’t changed since last year that may still offer filers some challenges. Here’s a quick review of what to pay attention to:
The New IRS Retrieval Tool Last year, if you wanted FAFSA to access the tax information you already gave to the IRS, you just had to check a box, and boom—you could see all the figures FAFSA pulled from your tax reports. Easy peasy.
It’s not as simple this year, thanks to a hacker who allegedly tried to use this system to gain access to President Trump’s tax records. The only thing the hacker succeeded in doing is making things harder on this year’s filers. A new security procedure still allows you to have FAFSA pull your IRS information; it’s just that you won’t be able to see the actual figures they pulled to make sure they’re accurate. This will likely be a little frustrating to first-time filers; the best workaround is to enter the tax information yourself, which may take longer, but is also more transparent.
Award Letters May Not Come Any Sooner You’d like to think that filing for financial aid sooner means you will get more financial aid packages from colleges sooner, but that hasn’t been the case. Many public colleges relying on state money to fund financial aid programs are still waiting for legislatures to approve annual budgets, or for money to show up during the next fiscal year. This can limit their ability to send financial aid packages any earlier than February or March.
The same has been true for many private colleges. Even though their funding isn’t tied to state budgets, many private colleges still have late application deadlines—and many are hesitant to make financial aid offers to any students, before understanding the financial needs of all the students they’ve admitted. This will require patience on the part of students and parents; if you want to know when you can expect an offer, call the college’s financial aid office and ask.
Net Price Calculators One thing that also hasn’t changed is the availability of net price calculators, the magic web page each college is required to have that allows you to get some idea how much you’ll be expected to pay for college. By answering just a few questions, you can get a rough estimate what college will cost at that college, and that’s good.
Now that net price calculators have been around for a while, it’s important to remember their limits. Some will include merit-based scholarships in their calculations, but some won’t. In addition, most calculators don’t tell you how much of any financial aid package you get will be loan—and that’s just as important a figure as the amount of cash you’ll pay now. So continue to use them, but use them wisely.