FAFSA Deadline Change: A Positive Move or Adding More Chaos to the Mix?

If this headline caught your attention, you probably already know about the FAFSA deadline change. However, for those who don’t, here are the facts:

  • This year, for the first time, students are permitted to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, on October 1st. This is the result of FAFSA allowing students to submit PPY (prior-prior year) tax information, rather than the current year data that was previously required.
  • The new October 1st date is three months earlier than the previous deadline to apply for aid.

savings, finances, economy and home concept - close up of man with calculator counting money and making notes at home

Why the change?

The deadline was pushed back in order to achieve two objectives: one, to give students more time to go through the process of applying for financial aid, and two, to enable schools to put together financial aid packages earlier so that students can make more informed decisions about where to attend based on how much financial aid they’ll receive.

However, there are a few problems with this grand vision. If students actually take those “extra” three months (between the old deadline and the new deadline) to put together their FAFSA, they’ll be at a disadvantage for receiving first-come first-served financial aid money available at many institutions. On the flip side, even if students do submit their forms at the earliest possible moment, schools may not be prepared to dole out financial aid packages earlier than before. Those that do will likely be forced to tack on a lot of caveats, because so many factors that influence financial aid are not yet finalized on their end. As attested by W. Kent Barnds, EVP of enrollment, communications, and planning at Augustana College, “We in college admissions will have to enter the unknown territory of fulfilling the expectations of students who believe this will provide them earlier information about net price—when, in fact, that will not be a universal outcome because not all colleges will be equipped to provide earlier awards.”

In the end, the earlier deadline is likely to result in just as much if not more uncertainty and stress than before—and to add insult to injury, earlier in the school year, as well. Summer and fall have traditionally been the seasons to finalize college lists and submit applications for admission, leaving financial aid submissions until January, when the FAFSA was first previously available. Now, every part of this getting-admitted-to-college process will start in the fall—on top of the start to students’ senior year.

So if results of this deadline change aren’t idyllic for students, what about schools? Does this benefit them at all?

If students actually used those extra three months to prepare their applications and waited to submit their FAFSA forms until the traditional application time, schools would be fine. Which, in a word, means that no, schools are not benefitting from this change.

Now that students can submit their financial aid applications earlier, schools are being pressured to send financial aid offer letters earlier. After all, this was one of the objectives for pushing back the deadline: to help students make more informed decisions about where they choose to attend college. However, the factors that affect the amount of financial aid schools can offer often haven’t yet been decided. For instance, the maximum Federal Pell Grant for 2017–18 won’t be known until early 2017; state grants may not yet be approved by the legislature; and tuition for the coming academic year is probably not yet finalized (many schools don’t set tuition until the spring). All of these uncertainties result in more work for schools, as they attempt to estimate and then revise incomplete financial aid offers. And let’s not forget: all of this must now be done during a time when schools would previously have focused on recruiting their next freshman classes!

Another blow to recruiting comes from the first-come first-served nature of financial aid. By pushing back the timeline and responding to pressure by doling out financial aid offers earlier and earlier, colleges risk promising all of their financial aid money before reviewing every application they receive. As a result, they may loose students who were more academically deserving of financial aid—and would have been a greater boon for the school—but who did not get their applications in until later in the year, after financial aid has already been promised to other students.

One claimed benefit for institutions is that they will receive more accurate student financial data because the prior-prior year tax data will have to have been completed for that year’s income tax return. However, the potential drawback to using prior-prior year data is that while it is more complete, students’ financial situations may have changed dramatically in those last two years. Thus, while the financial data may be more complete, it may actually be less accurate.

One thing is for sure: this earlier financial aid deadline will push back the entire process, and not just for students and for college financial aid offices. Marketing will need to come earlier, starting in earnest already in students’ junior year. The same holds true for recruitment. College fairs will shift to spring and summertime, college visits will happen earlier . . . everything will move backwards, except for the student’s final decision. While every other deadline can be pushed back, colleges cannot force students to accept their admissions offers any earlier. So, in the end, students may now need to rush to apply to college more than ever before, but they should have considerably more time to make their final decisions.