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The White House recently announced two major changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, designed to make it easier for students to apply for aid:1

  1. Starting Oct. 1, 2016, students can apply for financial aid in October of their senior year of high school, rather than waiting until January
  2. To facilitate this, students and their families can fill out the form using tax information from two years prior to when they plan on entering college (known as the "prior-prior year"), rather than having to wait until the current year's tax season to complete financial aid paperwork

For example, under the new procedures, a student planning to enter college in fall of 2017 could apply for aid in October 2016 using tax information from their family's 2015 filing (note that the new change does not take place until next October, so a student entering in fall of 2016 would need to use 2015 tax information under the current, soon-to-be-replaced procedures).

Along with other recent simplifications of the FAFSA process, these changes enable students to apply earlier and make filling out the forms easier. The changes will also increase the number of Pell Grant recipients and reduce the paperwork burden on colleges. To bring these benefits to students and colleges, high school guidance counselors can make students aware of the new procedures and how to complete the overall FAFSA application process.

Mention FAFSA Early and Often

It's vital to raise student awareness of the FAFSA toward the end of junior year, and again as early as possible during their senior year. Since teachers have more contact with students than counselors, encourage them to mention the FAFSA when students come back from summer vacation. School counselors can then schedule student meetings early in senior year and emphasize the FAFSA when students come in.

Schools can also host special events to introduce the FAFSA to students and their parents. Kick off the school year with a "college prep party," where you educate parents and students about the FAFSA. After Oct. 1, hold regular workshops where students can use school computers to submit the form online while staff members are there to help. Senior orientations and open house events with question-and-answer sessions also provide opportunities to educate parents and students about the FAFSA.

Distribute Supporting Resources

When talking with students and parents about the FAFSA, supply them with supporting resources that make it easier for them to take action. Provide packages with step-by-step instructions, reference materials and contact information. The materials you distribute should include links to online resources, such as FAFSA's website,2 FinAid's video FAFSA tutorial,3 and the Federal Student Aid website page for obtaining an FSA ID.4

Provide Information About Required Paperwork

Collecting the paperwork needed to fill out the FAFSA form is the most challenging part of the process. Make this easier by providing parents and students with a checklist of documents they need to gather before filling out the form. They will need:

  1. FSA IDs
  2. Social Security numbers
  3. Federal income tax returns from the correct year (currently one year before the student's college enrollment date; after October 2016, two years before the enrollment date)
  4. Recent bank statements
  5. Recent brokerage statements

Once these materials are on hand, it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to complete the form.

Stress Deadlines

Although students now have more time to get their FAFSA application submitted, that doesn't mean it's OK to procrastinate on getting it done. The earlier students submit their applications, the better their chances of getting certain types of aid, according to U.S. News & World Report. Also, students who miss final deadlines will face more competition for federal loan opportunities and may be forced to take more expensive private loans instead.

Make students and their parents aware of the urgency of these deadlines. Use individual meetings, public presentations, emails and phone calls to reinforce the importance of submitting the form before deadlines.

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Resources: (1) Fact Sheet: The President's Plan for Early Financial Aid (2) FAFSA (3) 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA (4) FSA ID