With a major administration change in 2017, there is plenty of speculation about how higher education will be affected. The national debate in the last several years on higher education has centered around helping people pay for college tuition. A brand-new administration in Washington could signal a new direction in education policy.
There are already some changes in education law which will affect college students in 2017, however. Despite speculation for new or revised programs beyond this next year, there are definite changes in place which should be understood.
The most significant education law changes impacting college students, and potential college students, in 2017 center around the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Federal Student Aid Office, part of the U.S. Department of Education, manages a national system of tuition assistance that was established in 1965. They developed the FAFSA and verify the information submitted.
FAFSA is a centralized, streamlined system of applying for financial aid, not only from federal programs, but also from state and private institutions. Most colleges recognize the information submitted in the FAFSA, and all students who anticipate attending college must complete the form to qualify for any financial assistance.
Here are some changes to be aware of for 2017:
1. Change in Income Tax Reporting for Financial Aid
The bulk of the FAFSA is devoted to reporting your family financial data so the extent of your financial need can be assessed. It can be a cumbersome process spanning two tax years. In your initial filing, estimated income data is used and then replaced with actual tax information once it becomes available.
In the coming year, the rules about tax information on the FAFSA will be different. Instead of estimating the current year’s income and then verifying later, the past year’s tax information will be sufficient. This change in the FAFSA rules makes the best of the gap of time between the new year starting and the old year’s taxes being filed.
When you complete your FAFSA in January and your taxes for that year are not due until April, there is no way to access accurate information. Starting in 2017, the previous year’s tax information, which is already available, will be used. So people filing their FAFSA in 2017 will use their income tax filing from 2015.
Estimating is not the most accurate way to determine your income, and revising the FAFSA after the April tax deadline is time-consuming. Schools have less time to make their financial aid determinations because they have to wait until the verified tax information is added to the form.
With the FAFSA completed earlier, colleges have more time to make their determinations and offer financial aid packages to prospective students. Getting those award letters earlier in the application process may make it less stressful for applicants to make a decision and complete their enrollment.
2. Financial Aid Form Filing Date Change
Applying for financial aid for college tuition is a process which begins long before high school graduation. In some cases, getting the FAFSA filed and anticipating the outcome can add to the stress of senior year. There is a lot of uncertainty with graduating high school and not knowing if or where you will attend college until what feels like the last minute.
A change in the FAFSA filing schedule might alleviate some of this stress, however. You cannot file the FAFSA until the form for that year is issued, usually in January for students expecting to enroll the following fall. In the coming academic year, however, the FAFSA will be available sooner and can be filed as early as October. That is almost a full year before your expected enrollment in college.
With the FAFSA available prior to a potential October filing date, there is more time to complete the form. Tax information that was prepared the previous April should be available and will provide a bulk of the data required. The deadline to file the FAFSA will not change, only the beginning of the filing period. This way, there is just more time to get it done.
Filing the FAFSA in October gives schools more time to make their determinations, too. With earlier filing, you may be able to expect an earlier decision from your college of choice. Having all the financial award information in your hands sooner can make it less stressful to make a decision and complete your college enrollment.
This new filing date works in conjunction with the ability to use the previous year’s tax information. There should be no reason to file your income taxes earlier than the April deadline to complete the FAFSA. Once you file the form, completing your taxes for the current year will not mean you have to revise your FAFSA. Awards will be based on the income information provided on your initial filing.
3. Decreased Transparency for Schools
When you file your FAFSA, you can choose to send it to up to ten schools. Those schools are presumably the institutions you wish to attend, in order of importance to you. You may not realize it, but the schools have access to your list and probably take it into consideration when determining their financial award to you.
A school that is listed at the top of your wish list could assume that you will want to attend if you are accepted, no matter the cost. They might choose to accept you academically but not make you a scholarship offer. Or, their financial award offer to you, should you choose to attend their institution, might be smaller than it would be if they were further down on your list.
For many top schools, admissions is a competitive process. They compete with each other for the best students, so they can claim the highest graduation rates, high graduate employment rates, and association with people who go on to make great achievements. All of these factors help a college create and maintain a high profile and bring in more donations.
Starting in 2017, when you file your FAFSA, the admissions officers at the various institutions on your list will not see the other colleges you applied to. They will not have any idea, unless you mention it somewhere else in your application, if they are your top choice or not.
Without this insight into your academic preferences, the schools you apply to will have to evaluate your application and financial need at face value. The expectation is that the new blind system will result in higher financial awards from most colleges. They will not be able to low-ball a candidate who has them high on their list knowing that a financial award is not needed to attract their interest.
Your list of colleges to release your financial information to will be visible, however, to state agencies. One way to maximize your chances of a larger state aid award is to list a state college first. That will not hurt your chances with other institutions because they will not see it.
4. Financial Need Redefined
The FAFSA is an instrument used to demonstrate your need for financial assistance with college tuition, and it remains the most important financial aide document all potential college students need to complete. Some of the criteria used for calculating any financial award, however, is changing in 2017.
When parents file the FAFSA, it includes both income information and assets. The assets portion is used in part to develop a baseline for accessibility to college tuition loans and grants. A certain portion of the assets you declare in the FAFSA is not counted toward your total financial picture but instead, is sheltered. The sheltered portion is determined by a number of factors, including marital status and age.
The amount of sheltered assets on the FAFSA in 2017 will be significantly less than that of 2016. For the 2015-2016 school year, $30,300 in assets were sheltered for a married couple sending their dependent child to college if the oldest of the two parents was 48. In the academic year 2017-2018, that sheltered amount will be only $18,700.
By reducing the sheltered assets amount, the resulting eligibility for financial aid will be commensurately lower. On average, an increase in counted assets by $10,000 will make a $564 impact on the financial award. A fluctuation of a couple hundred dollars in financial aid from one academic year to the next could mean the difference between continuing their current college program and seeking a less expensive alternative or prolonging completion.
This change in sheltered assets allowance is most likely to impact families in the middle-income brackets. Those with larger incomes and more assets typically do not rely on federal financial aid for college. Families in the lower-income brackets do not usually have large assets to be considered.
Of course, assets are not the only criteria used to determine financial aid eligibility. Income is a more important factor, and other criteria are also considered when determining financial need. Perhaps the people who will be impacted the most by this change are those who are already receiving financial aid. If your family has assets significant enough to impact your award, the amount of that award will be reduced next year.
5. Summer Funding Available
Until now, federal financial aid programs were structured to cover the fall and spring semesters of a traditional college program. Although summer sessions are available at most institutions, financial aid limitations restricted students who were dependent on tuition assistance from attending.
For students in financial need, summer programs had to be funded by private scholarships, but now federal financial aid is available to cover all or part of the summer session. This change will allow students to accelerate their completion of a degree program and get into the workforce faster.
Being able to take summer classes, if you qualify for financial assistance, increases options for study, as well. Supplementing your core curriculum with a summer course in a related area can help enrich your educational experience. Typically, summer classes are more intense and condensed than courses during the regular school year. Incoming freshman can choose to get a head start on the college curriculum by taking a course in the summer. This can make the academic adjustment to college a little easier and ensure better achievement.
Tips for Applying to College in 2017
Applying to college and getting the financial aid you are entitled to can seem like a complicated process. Education law is always changing, and it can be stressful to keep up with it. Do not give up, but instead follow these tips:
- Plan ahead — Understand the college application process is long. Start as soon as possible to give yourself enough time to meet all the requirements. It is never too early to begin the process, even if you are not sure what you want to study or when you will be ready to attend college.
- Follow directions — There are a lot of rules for applying to college. Each institution has its own requirements, plus there are the financial aid forms. One basic test for whether you will make a good college student is your ability to follow the directions in applying to college. Read the instructions for each form you fill out. Do exactly what they say, and check off each requirement as you go.
- Ask an expert — There is no shame in asking for help. Your high school guidance counselor or a college admissions counselor can explain the application process to you. They are involved in this process every year and will know the best way for you to proceed. Make an appointment to sit down with a counselor and ask all of your questions. Check back with that person several times during the process to be sure you are on the right track.
- Do not give up — You do not have to understand education law to apply to college. Do not let the complication of the big picture deter you from pursuing your education. Exhaust all avenues of financial assistance until you have the awards you need to attend college. You may have to start with a smaller, less expensive school than your first choice, but keep trying, and you will get the education you need to succeed in life.
- Have a backup plan — Always apply to more than one school and all of the financial assistance programs you have access to. Develop a plan for earning the money you need for college in case you do not get the financial assistance you want. Look into attending a trade school if you do not get into the college of your choice. With shorter, less expensive training programs, a trade school could give you the means to earn your own tuition. Getting job training will give you something to fall back on or a means of supporting yourself while you are pursuing your dream career.
- Consider non-traditional career paths — The role of college has changed in recent years. It is no longer a stepping stone to management or a high-paying job. Consider what field you would like to work in and how to become qualified for jobs in that field. There are financial aid programs available for non-traditional students, people reentering the workforce, and those who want to change careers. Contact the admissions department at Vista College to learn about training programs which might be right for you and how to apply for financial assistance to attend those programs.
Changes to education law will impact college students in 2017, but that should not deter you from applying to college. Some of these changes might actually be beneficial to you and increase your chances of getting financial aid for your academic pursuits.