Long lines snaked around the Student Services Building on Monday, Aug. 22 as students anxiously waited to speak with financial aid counselors.
“It’s crazy, it gets stacked up here every year,” said junior Nowell Francisco, who sat on the floor waiting for his turn. “It’s a pain, but it’s really important. There’s no way I could go to school here without (financial aid).”
Disbursement dates this week at SF State make it one of the busiest times for the University’s financial aid department. As students sort out their aid packages for the upcoming semester, many are unaware of the changes with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that are about to take effect.
The alterations are part of a plan President Obama announced last September to simplify and streamline the financial aid process.
FAFSA, which assesses eligibility for federal student aid and is used by many colleges, states and private organizations, allows 13 million applicants to access over $150 billion in federal aid each year, according to the The Office of Federal Student Aid
The changes include making the 2017-2018 FAFSA available beginning Oct. 1. Moving up the launch from the original date of January 1, 2017 serves to increase FAFSA’s alignment with the college application process, according to a September 2015 White House press release.
“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…” the release states.
Many students expressed a positive reaction to news of the earlier timeline.
“It’s really helpful because the sooner you know how much help you will receive, the more you can explore your different options,” said Allan Trejo, a civil engineering major about to start his senior year.
In the past, students were notified of their financial aid awards just weeks before May 1, the nationally recognized deadline, to accept college admissions offers. This left students with little time evaluate their aid packages.
Michaela Gershon, 18, said the time constraint increased the pressure she felt while selecting a school.
“The financial aspect played a big role, but I wasn’t notified of my aid until right before the deadline,” said the incoming freshman. “I waited until the very last day (to pick a college) because it was hard to decide so abruptly.”
To address this, the Department of Education is encouraging colleges and states to send out award notifications earlier, according to a letter the department sent out last March.
“I think students and parents are going to respond more positively to a school where they know how much they are going to get to go to that school,” Ed M. Pacchetti, who is leading the department’s effort, said in an interview with Education Week. “It could become a competitive advantage for schools who do package earlier.”
The plan also changes tax information required on FAFSA to a year earlier, which has been dubbed the “prior-prior” year. For example, on the 2017-2018 application, students will use their tax return from 2015 instead of 2016.
During previous award cycles, students typically used estimates to initially fill out FAFSA. They were then forced to wait until their current taxes were processed to update and submit their application. With taxes due in April, applications often remained incomplete for many months.
To maximize potential awards, students will have to move up their timelines to match the new application period. Students who submit FAFSA within the first three months of the application cycle receive twice as much aid on average as students who complete the application later, according to the study Leaving Money on the Table. Most states and colleges have limited funding, so they offer aid on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds run out, the study’s summary states.
The current March 2 deadline for Cal Grants will remain the same because it is included in state law, according to an update released by the California State Aid Commision. It is likely SF State will also keep their deadline of March 2, according to Barbara Hubler the Director of Financial Aid, who said within the next month they would have more concrete information.
“The financial aid application priority deadline is statewide,” Hubler said. “Although not official, my understanding is that the (CSU) will continue using the March 2 priority application deadline.”
SF State will initiate outreach soon to educate students on the the changes to FAFSA, according to Hubler, who said, “In the next few weeks after classes begin, we will roll out a communication plan to continuing and future students.”