You asked, we answered. Get the lowdown on federal student aid.

I heard that there are some changes coming to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) this year. Will these changes affect the financial aid my child receives?

Although there are some changes to the procedures for completing the FAFSA, these will have no impact on the way financial aid is awarded. In fact, it should make it easier for you and your child to make cost comparisons between colleges.

How and when is the FAFSA changing?

The biggest change is that the FAFSA will now be available October 1, three months earlier than the previous January 1 date. Since many students had already submitted their applications to preferred colleges by January, there was a time lag between college acceptance letters and each school’s financial aid award letter. This delay made it difficult for families to know which school really offered the best financial aid package before having to make a final decision.

Now the FAFSA for the 2017–18 academic year will be online beginning October 1, 2016. This should coincide more closely with the actual application process. Some colleges have already moved up their financial aid deadlines, while others have not, so check with each individual college. You can go to each college’s financial aid page online, look for information on how to apply and check for their deadline.

What else has changed about the FAFSA?

The other big change is that you will now be able to use an earlier year’s tax return to complete the FAFSA. Previously, applicants either had to file their taxes before completing the FAFSA or use estimated numbers, which then had to be updated once an applicant’s taxes were filed. For families with complicated tax situations or those who required extensions, this opened the door for errors which could delay submitting the FAFSA and impact their financial aid award.

Since the new FAFSA uses the prior-prior-year principle, this means that the 2017–18 FAFSA will use the 2015 tax return. By October 1, most families should have completed their tax returns for 2015, so they should be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool when completing the tax portion of the FAFSA for both the student and parent. This tool is integrated into the online application and accesses the IRS database to automatically populate your application with the correct information from your tax return. However, make sure you keep your tax return on hand, as you may need to manually input some information.

When should I complete the FAFSA?

Even though there is more time to complete the FAFSA than in previous years, it is still recommended that you complete it as soon as possible after October 1. There are certain forms of financial aid that are available only on a first-come, first-served basis, so filing earlier ensures your child is considered for the most financial aid.

In the meantime, you can start preparing with the Discover Student Loans FAFSA assistant. This interactive tool will provide helpful tips and guidance for completing the FAFSA based on your personal situation. It is recommended that you and your child obtain your FSA ID and begin gathering the appropriate documentation so you will be ready to start your FAFSA by October 1.


Jodi Okun is founder and president of College Financial Aid Advisors and a Discover Student Loans brand ambassador. Visit her website at collegefinancialaidadvisors.com. She is also the expert on “Paying for College” at the balance, an About.com brand, and was recently acknowledged as one of the “Top 30 Social Influencers in Personal Finance & Wealth.” She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, US News & Education and The Huffington Post. The opinions expressed in this article are Jodi’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Discover Student Loans.

FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.