Financial aid advice from Iowa Central

For many high school seniors, October marks the beginning of the college application season. October has always been a month for students to focus on filling out college applications and planning college visits, but in recent years another extremely important task was added to the October to-do list: applying for financial aid. Applying to college can be stressful itself and when you add in applying for financial aid, your to-do list may suddenly seem overwhelming. Don’t be frightened by this additional task. There have been various improvements to the FAFSA over the last few years that have eased the burden of completing the application and improved the security of the information being reported.

Over the last few years, several changes have been implemented to make applying for financial aid easier. Oct.1, 2016, was the first year the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, became available early. Students are now able to complete the FAFSA starting in October, three months earlier than previous years. The FAFSA for 2018-2019 became available on Oct. 1. This means high school seniors can begin completing the FAFSA in October instead of waiting until January. By submitting the FAFSA early schools are able to provide award letters to students sooner making it easier to compare college costs. As a result of the early FAFSA, some schools have chosen to push up their deadlines. It is important to check with the college(s) you are interested in to find out what their FAFSA priority deadline is so you don’t miss out on funding.

Along with the early FAFSA date, the income requirements on the FAFSA have also changed. The FAFSA now requires prior, prior year income to be used. This means that instead of using income from one year prior to complete the FAFSA, students and parents will now use income from two years prior to the award year in which the student will begin taking classes. For the 2018-2019 FAFSA, 2016 income will be used. This is especially helpful because students and parents will no longer have to fill out the FAFSA with an estimated income because taxes are already filed, students and parents won’t feel rushed to file taxes to complete the FAFSA, and families who have filed income tax extensions will no longer run into problems obtaining the correct information to report on the FAFSA.

Oftentimes when students and parents realize that income tax returns are used to complete the FAFSA, there is a bit of anxiety, which is why the next change is especially exciting. The use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool has been brought back for the 2018-2019 FAFSA cycle. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows tax-filers to link to the IRS website and securely transfer income data directly to the FAFSA without having to flip through the many pages of the tax return. The tool was first implemented during the 2012-2013 FAFSA cycle and was used until spring of 2017 when it was disabled. While the tool was disabled, it underwent a transformation to ensure the security of the sensitive information being electronically transferred. Now, when the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is used, the data is encrypted and will only tell the tax-filer if the transfer was successful or not. The new process ensures the data is accurate and prohibits the FAFSA filer from changing the numbers prior to FAFSA submission.

The IRS Data Retrieval tool is not the only part of the process that underwent a transition to become more secure. The FSA ID was introduced in May of 2015 to be used as an electronic signature. The FSA ID replaced the old four-digit PIN number. The FSA ID consists of a username and password that the student and parent create and is verified through the use of a unique email address or cell phone number. Both the student and at least one parent whose information will be on the FAFSA should create an FSA ID as the FAFSA will require two signatures prior to submission. The FSA ID is also required for tax-filers to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. The use of the FSA ID allows the tax-filer’s identity to be verified prior to transferring data. When creating an FSA ID, be sure to create a username and password that is easy to remember and use a personal email address instead of a high school or work email address that could be disabled upon graduation or termination. The same FSA ID will be used each time the individual completes a FAFSA and it can be difficult to retrieve if forgotten.

Upon completion of the FAFSA, and assuming the student meets all eligibility requirements, the college will award financial aid to the student for the award period in which he or she intends to enroll. For semester schools, this usually means awarding students for the fall and spring semesters. At the end of the spring semester, a full-time student could have utilized their entire allocation of financial aid, leaving no additional funding to assist with paying for a third semester within that same award year (summer semester). A change that will go into effect at most schools during the summer of 2018 will expand access to the federal Pell grant for a third semester. This is called Year-Round Pell which was first introduced temporarily in 2011 and was ended after one year. Year-Round Pell will be back permanently and most schools will see students utilizing this great opportunity during the summer of 2018. Students who were enrolled full-time and utilized their entire Pell grant during the fall and spring semesters, will be eligible to receive an additional disbursement during the same award year to assist with paying for summer classes. This program will help students accelerate through their programs at a faster pace and assist them in meeting graduation requirements sooner.

Historically, the FAFSA and the programs associated with the FAFSA have encountered very few changes. Small improvements were made each year to slightly ease the burden, but those changes never created as large of an impact as the changes that have gone into effect during recent years. The changes described above have assisted in streamlining the financial aid process, making it more accurate and assisting students in graduating earlier. To avoid running into problems or missing deadlines, complete the FAFSA early and reach out to the Financial Aid Office at your college of interest if questions arise.

If you would like help filling out the FAFSA, Iowa Central will be hosting a FAFSA Ready Iowa event on from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 1, 2017 in the Student Support Services building. This is a statewide event that allows families to work directly with financial aid staff to complete the FAFSA.

Linsey Christie is the financial aid director at Iowa Central Community College.