Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 14
Will FAFSA Changes Speed Up Aid Awards?
By Catherine Gewertz
The 2016-17 school year marks
a major milestone for aspiring college students: They can apply for
federal financial aid on Oct. 1, three
months earlier than in the past, in
the hope of getting earlier aid decisions from colleges.
The change was designed to make
college decisions easier, especially for
low-income students. But a bevy of
barriers, including state budgeting
cycles and longstanding admissions timetables, are likely to undermine that vision, at least in this
Along with making the Free
Application for Federal Student
Aid, or FAFSA, available on Oct.
1 instead of Jan. 1, the U.S. Department of Education this year
is allowing students to use what
insiders call "prior-prior year," or
"PPY," tax information: family
tax data that's a year older than
what's been permitted in the past.
Students applying for college in
the fall of 2017 can submit their
family's 2015 taxes, instead of notyet-finished 2016 tax figures that
would have to be updated later.
That switch allows families to
make better use of the FAFSA's
data-retrieval tool, which automatically grabs their 2015 Internal Revenue Service information and plops
it into the federal aid application.
Taken together, the changes are
designed to make it quicker and easier to apply for the $129 billion in
loans, grants, and work-study slots
that the Education Department
awards each year to help 12 million
students pay for college.
The College Board's CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, used by 380,000
students last year to apply for aid at
many private colleges, also now accepts prior-prior year tax data.
The Education Department has
encouraged colleges and universities to make financial aid awards
earlier, and is optimistic that many
will do so, said Ed M. Pacchetti, who
is leading the implementation of the
early FAFSA from the department's
office of federal student aid.
"We do think schools want students and parents to know earlier
how much aid they qualify for," he
said. "I think students and parents
are going to respond more positively
to a school where they know how
much they're going to get to go to
that school. It could become somewhat of a competitive advantage for
schools who do package earlier."
behalf. And interviews with financialaid officers suggest that relatively
few colleges and universities will be
able to provide students with aid decisions any earlier than usual.
Typically, high school students
submit financial aid applications
by mid-February. While they receive word instantly about federal
loans and grants, they must wait
much longer-often until early or
mid-April-to receive aid offers
from the colleges that have offered
them admission. With a nationally
recognized date of May 1 to accept
a college's offer of enrollment, families often have only a few weeks to
evaluate multiple financial-aid offers and figure out how to finance
gaps between aid and the cost of
college. It's a particularly tight spot
for families without deep pockets.
That's what Aislinn Diaz went
through last year when she was trying to figure out where she could afford to go to college. Diaz was 17 and a
senior at Irma L. Rangel Young Women's Leadership School, a public, allgirls school of 560 students in Dallas.
She'd been accepted at four colleges
and wait-listed at another. Her parents run a barbecue restaurant, and
couldn't afford to foot a big college bill,
so financial-aid offers mattered a lot.
With only a few weeks until they
had to make a decision, Diaz and her
family plunged into evaluating what
they would have to pay, given the cost
of each, how much aid it offered, the
federal grants she'd been awarded,
and the other scholarships her counselor, had pushed her to apply for. "It
was a really stressful time," Diaz said.
She accepted the offer that made
the smallest financial demand on
her family: from Wellesley College
in Massachusetts. Now a rising
sophomore, Diaz is happy with her
choice, but the what-if's still swirl
in her head. Would it have gone differently if she had had more time to
evaluate the offers, and visit the colleges that made them?
State, Institutional Barriers
College and university financialaid administrators support the use
of "prior-prior year" tax information, and the early availability of
the FAFSA, said Megan McClean
Coval, the vice president of public
policy and federal relations for the
National Association of Student
Financial Aid Administrators. But
it's been less than a year since the
Education Department announced
those changes in September 2015,
and it will take a few years to shift
timelines that have long governed
higher education, she said.
Iowa State University is pushing hard to honor the spirit of the
timeline shift. Roberta Johnson,
the director of the office of student
financial aid at the 36,000-student
institution, said it is "committed"
to sending out financial-aid awards
by the end of January, two months
earlier than usual. Many private
institutions are cushioned by big
endowments or research grants, but
publicly funded schools like Iowa
State depend heavily on tuition,
which is driven by state funding
levels. Iowa's legislature doesn't convene until January, so Iowa State is
going out on a limb to promise aid
decisions that same month, she said.
"We're definitely going into some
uncharted territory as we start to
plan," Johnson said.
The university might have to send
out aid letters with conditional language, and revise the awards later,
Johnson said. And sending aid letters out early has ripple effects on
the fall calendar: Iowa State will
have to ask students to turn in the
FAFSA on Dec. 1, instead of its usual
March 1. Johnson and her colleagues
are worried about how that will affect admissions.
"Some students are still visiting
our campus in the late fall. They
might not decide to apply here until
after Jan. 1. Now we might lose those
students" if the financial-aid deadline
is so early, or applicants who miss the
deadline will be at a disadvantage in
getting institutional aid, she said.
To minimize those effects, Iowa
State plans to add a new element
to fall visits: Students can sit down
with financial-aid officers and fill
out the FAFSA right there.
But most colleges and universities
will find those changes impossible.
Rachelle Feldman, who oversees
financial aid at the University of
California, Berkeley, said her school
supports the FAFSA changes, but
High school counselors say they're
happy that their students will find it
easier to submit financial-aid applications this year. But many are saying
privately that they aren't optimistic
students will reap a key hoped-for
benefit of the earlier FAFSA: getting
aid decisions from colleges earlier.
"A lot of the promise of this whole
thing falls apart if colleges don't
give us those decisions earlier," said
one counselor, who didn't want to be
named for fear of alienating the colleges she works with on her students'
Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP-File
Rushing to Weigh Aid Offers
Seniors Luke Leckron, second from left, and Kristen Tucci, far right, get
help applying for federal financial aid at Oak Hill High School in Mier, Ind.,
in February. Students can submit forms earlier this academic year.
14 | EDUCATION WEEK | July 20, 2016 | www.edweek.org
its admissions cycle won't permit it.
At Berkeley, which received 103,000
applications last year, admissions
officers use an intensive, holistic approach, and don't finish until early
spring. Even if FAFSA applications
arrive in the fall, there wouldn't be
admitted-student records to match
them with yet, she said.
Berkeley is trying to move the
FAFSA process earlier for returning
students, to free up time to evaluate
new students' aid applications and
make early offers, Feldman said. But
even as campus officials work toward
that, they're questioning it.
"How valuable is it to get an aid
offer if there are 15 asterisks because
we don't know what the budget is,
what tuition will be, what the [maximum] Pell Grant [amount] will be?"
she said. "Is it better to have an early
letter with lots of caveats or a later letter that says you can count on this?"
Even software systems can
complicate moving financial-aid
awards earlier. Samantha Veeder,
the director of financial aid at the
University of Rochester, said she
usually receives annual updates
after Jan. 1 to the software that
lets financial aid offices manage
students' admissions and aid files.
If updates don't come earlier, she
said, her private institution of
5,300 students might not be able
to match early FAFSA submissions
with admissions applications.
High school counselors have welcomed the early FAFSA, saying that
a quicker, easier process will encourage more students to apply for aid.
But it's also making them scramble
to rearrange college-planning events.
Marie Bigham, the college counselor at the Newman School, a
small, private K-12 school in New
Orleans, said that a program she
would have held in late August,
just as school begins, on how to
fill out college applications, was
pushed back to June 6. The session
she typically scheduled for early
January, to acquaint families with
the financial-aid process, will instead be held in late September or
Counselors tend to use fall to focus
students on finalizing their college
lists and submitting applications, and
then turn to financial aid in January, when the FAFSA used to become
available. Dealing with them both together, in the fall, will intensify counselors' workloads at a busy time of
year, said Ann Marano, Aislinn Diaz's
counselor, at Irma L. Rangel Young
Women's Leadership School.
"This dramatically changes the
stress points. I usually say senior
year is a roller coaster, but this
makes it a fall squeeze," she said.
But a heavy workload isn't most
counselors' top concern about the
early FAFSA. Even those who applaud it, in K-12 and higher education, are worried about its possible
If colleges move priority aid deadlines up in order to produce earlier
awards, the impact could fall disproportionately on lower-income stu-
CHANGES IN THE FAFSA
Students who apply to college in
2016-17, for enrollment in 201718, will be able to take advantage
of several big changes in the Free
Application for Federal Student Aid,
or FAFSA. They're designed to make
applications quicker and easier,
and possibly get financial-aid
decisions earlier from colleges, too.
ALLOW students to submit
applications three months earlier:
Oct. 1, 2016.
ALLOW the use of "prior-prior year"
(2015) tax information.
MAXIMIZE the use of a data-retrieval
tool that automatically populates the
application with 2015 tax information.
dents, said Veeder, of the University
of Rochester. They typically have the
least access to counseling support in
college planning, and might not realize that a lot of institutional aid
is distributed on a first-come, firstserved basis. It might be gone if they
wait too long to apply.
Some high school counselors worry
that the pressure to submit applications for aid, and possibly admissions,
earlier might lead students to shortcircuit a full college-exploration process. In late fall, many teenagers are
still figuring out where to apply. An
early, good financial aid offer could
lead a student to "take himself out of
the admissions marketplace" because
he feels he already has a good choice,
said Phil Trout, a college counselor at
Minnesota's Minnetonka High School.
Earlier deadlines could move the
entire college planning and application process up, with high school
transcripts needed before the first
semester of senior year ends, said
Johnson, of Iowa State.
"It could end up being a six-semester transcript, and that could put
more pressure on students in those
first three years," she said. "And what
does that do to senior year?"
Even so, many counselors view the
earlier FAFSA timetable as a door to
college that just opened wider.
"At our school, the question isn't if
you'll go to college, but where you'll
go to college," said Marano, the counselor at Irma L. Rangel in Dallas.
"And for our families, the financial
aid piece is important. So making it
easier is huge."
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - July 20, 2016
Education Week - July 20, 2016
First-Generation College-Goers Try Campus Life
Dose of Empathy Found To Cut Suspension Rates
Vouchers Put Some Parents in Squeeze on Spec. Ed. Rights
Data Loom Large in Quest for New School-Quality Indicator
Detroit District Splits To Shore Up Schools
News in Brief
Common Core Poses Logistical Challenges In Writing Instruction
Longtime Leader in Education Journalism Passes the Baton
Schools Prepare to Confront Questions on Race, Policing
Blogs of the Week
Landmark Equity Study Turns 50
A Persistent Divide
Digital Device Choice Has Noticeable Impact On Test Performance
Will FAFSA Changes Speed Up Aid Awards?
U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015-16 Term
States, Districts Eyeing Chance to Craft Innovative Tests
K-12 Issues: Where the Candidates Stand
Setting the Education Department’s Direction
Blogs of the Week
ALICE JOHNSON CAIN: ESSA Could Leave Vulnerable Students in Limbo
ERICA FRANKENBERG & LILIANA M. GARCES: What Fisher v. University of Texas Means for K-12 Districts
SAUL DREVITCH: The Wisdom of an 8th Grader
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
ADAM KIRK EDGERTON: K-12 Schools: We Have Our Own ‘Brexit’ Problem
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Detroit District Splits To Shore Up Schools
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 2
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 3
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - News in Brief
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Report Roundup
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Common Core Poses Logistical Challenges In Writing Instruction
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Longtime Leader in Education Journalism Passes the Baton
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Schools Prepare to Confront Questions on Race, Policing
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 9
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Landmark Equity Study Turns 50
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 11
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - A Persistent Divide
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Digital Device Choice Has Noticeable Impact On Test Performance
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Will FAFSA Changes Speed Up Aid Awards?
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 15
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 16
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 17
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 18
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 19
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 20
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - States, Districts Eyeing Chance to Craft Innovative Tests
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - K-12 Issues: Where the Candidates Stand
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 23
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Setting the Education Department’s Direction
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Blogs of the Week
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 26
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 27
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - ERICA FRANKENBERG & LILIANA M. GARCES: What Fisher v. University of Texas Means for K-12 Districts
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - SAUL DREVITCH: The Wisdom of an 8th Grader
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - Letters
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 31
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 32
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 34
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - 35
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - ADAM KIRK EDGERTON: K-12 Schools: We Have Our Own ‘Brexit’ Problem
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - CT1
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - CT2
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - CT3
Education Week - July 20, 2016 - CT4