Is your campus ready for the 2017-2018 FAFSA?

April was a halfway mark of sorts for the FAFSA policy shift—almost halfway between the date the change was announced (September 2015) and the date it will go into effect (October 2016.)

“Not to overstate it, but this is one of the most significant changes to the higher education landscape I’ve ever witnessed,” said John Barnhill, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management at Florida State University. “For many years, we’ve wanted an easier financial aid process and to get students better information earlier. Now with prior-prior year, we have it.”

That’s the good news, he says. The bad news?

“The implementation timeline is a little rushed,” he said. “But we’ve got to work with it.” With just over a year from announcement to implementation, financial aid, admissions offices, and enrollment managers across the country are feeling the stress—but they’re also feeling pretty optimistic about how the change will impact students and institutions overall.

Opportunity and obligation

The new policy brings with it both opportunity and obligation, Barnhill said. The obligation is to make sure the neediest students understand the new process and how to take advantage of it. Institutions should not take a “wait-and-see” approach to the new change, or students may suffer.

Barnhill made these observations during a live, free April webinar jointly developed by AACRAO, NACAC and the College Board, and hosted by the College Board. Other speakers included David Page, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Dillard University; and Jenny Rickard, Vice President for Enrollment, University of Puget Sound.

The webinar is the first in a three-part series designed to provide information and resources to college admission officers about the implementation of the 2017-18 FAFSA. Read on for highlights from that discussion, and view the archived webinar at your convenience. Find information about registering for future webinars at the end of this article.

Genesis of the new FAFSA

Beginning this October, for the 2017-18 academic year, the early FAFSA will be available earlier (October instead of January), and it will use the income information from two years prior rather than the immediately previous year for the purposes of calculating the expected family contribution for making financial aid awards decisions.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, “Learning about aid eligibility options much earlier in the college application and decision process will allow students and families to determine the true cost of attending college—taking available financial aid into account—and make more informed decisions.”

“Opening up the process earlier and enabling families to learn about their financial aid eligibility sooner could translate into benefits for students as well as institutions,” said Anne Sturtevant, Executive Director of Higher Education Initiatives at The College Board. “That said, shifting the entire infrastructure to support startup by next October has big implications for admissions and financial aid processes.”

A win-win situation

David Page noted that campuses can anticipate some benefits from the shift such as:

  • Students can apply for aid earlier.
  • More students and parents can use the Data Retrieval Tool to import IRS data to the FAFSA.
  • Admissions professionals share information earlier about net price and affordability—allowing a longer time for students to learn how to afford college.
  • Closer alignment with admissions cycle may encourage more students to apply for financial aid.

“I just see this as a win-win for us all in higher education,” Page said. “I would certainly encourage you each to make a plan regarding prior-prior year. But know that your plan in year one should be very fluid and flexible. The next 10-12 months will be critical as we move into this new adventure. But I am very optimistic and hopeful as to what lies ahead for our students.”

Essential campus conversations: Financial Aid

Page also cautioned about some of the potential impacts on financial aid offices that campuses should be discussing now.

  1. Timeline review. When does your campus set tuition? How might that affect this earlier FAFSA timeline? How will you handle new students, and how will you inform current students?
  2. Verifications and appeals. The use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool could reduce data verification and produce more accurate results. But what changes will result in financial services?
  3. Changes in student behavior. Page calls this the “biggest unknown.” How will students react? Will they file earlier? Who will take advantage of the change? Schools need to be ready with communication and education plans.
  4. Implications for expenditures. How will this change affect financial aid budgets? You’re your software vendor be ready for the change? Will your award strategy change? And what will your competitors do?

Essential campus conversations: Admissions Offices

It’s important to step up outreach to both current and prospective students, Barnhill said. But you don’t necessarily have to dramatically change your awarding timeline or create new admissions deadlines. It might take a few cycles to see how these changes affect yield and whether other processes need to change in response to the change.

“There are certainly a number of considerations here, as John and David have touched on, in terms of admission notification programs and deadlines, the corresponding timing of financial aid deadlines and notifications, and just the process of developing admission and packaging strategies and regiments,” said Jenny Rickard.

The answers aren’t yet clear, she added, but there are some crucial questions for admissions offices to address, including:

  • Now that financial aid forms can be filed earlier, will more institutions adopt early action and early decision programs?
  • Will more schools move to rolling admission or create waves of notifications once deadlines have passed?
  • Will there be an increase in number of institutions being need-aware early in the process
  • Just because students can file earlier, will institutions want to or be able to make awards earlier? Or will students and families demand this information earlier?
  • Will institutions know their cost of attendance for following year in the fall?

“Those are the kinds of considerations you’ll need to make,” Rickard said. “Will your institution be at a competitive disadvantage if you’re not making awards earlier and your competitors are?”

For more information

View the full webinar. Hear in-depth explorations of the above topics, as well as tips for making a transition plan and ideas about how to use data, metrics and monitoring to identify issues and make midcourse corrections.

Register for the next two webinars in the series:

  • Essential Information for “Road Warriors”: Helping Admission Staff Talk with Students and Families about the 2017-2018 FAFSA—hosted by NACAC, June 9
  • Practical Implications for the 2017-2018 FAFSA on Admission and Enrollment Management Offices—hosted by AACRAO, August 25

Visit AACRAO's FAFSA hot topics page.

Join the office of Federal Student Aid’s free webinar -- Tuesday May 3, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. ET featuring 17-18 FAFSA updates.