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Earlier Financial-Aid Timetable: Did It Make a Difference?

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FAFSA-earlier-NASFAA.pngA major change in the schedule for federal financial aid was based on a high hope: that students and families could learn of aid awards earlier, and have more time to sort out their options before choosing a college. Now there are signs that some institutions are providing this extra time.

A report released this summer by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that many colleges and universities sent out their decisions about financial aid weeks or months earlier than they had in the past. 

NASFAA surveyed its members about the early effects of big changes in the application schedule for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA.

In 2016-17, for the first time, students could submit the FAFSA on Oct. 1, three months earlier than usual. The idea was to facilitate earlier aid decisions from colleges and universities.

Not all institutions in the survey provided information about whether they moved up their timing for financial-aid decisions, and the survey was small—fewer than 300 respondents. So the results should be seen only as an early, tentative sense of how higher education is responding to changes in FAFSA policy.

The survey found that one third of colleges and universities sent their merit-based financial-aid decisions to students at the same time as their admission offers this year. That's much earlier than in the past. Typically, students receive offers of admission and then have to wait weeks to learn about their financial-aid offers, putting families under pressure as deadlines loomed.

Of the institutions that provided information about a change in their timetable, 54 percent indicated that they sent out need-based aid decisions earlier, the survey found. Many sent them out one to three months earlier than they had in the past.

"Our initial findings show that [the FAFSA timeline shift] is definitely getting some offers out there earlier for students," said Charlotte Etier, NASFAA's assistant director of research.

Concerns About Shift in Financial-Aid Schedule

Some had feared that with the FAFSA application season opening earlier, colleges would also set earlier deadlines to apply for aid, a move that could disproportionately hurt low-income students, who tend to apply later in the cycle. But the "overwhelming majority" of institutions—more than 8 in 10—did not set earlier aid deadlines, the NASFAA study found.

Institutions' response to the FAFSA changes suggest that they are "approaching this timing change cautiously and taking special care not to make any moves that would disenfranchise the exact cohort of students that most need financial aid help," NASFAA President Justin Draeger said in a statement.

Another big recent change in the FAFSA allows students to use family tax information from one year earlier than had been allowed in the past. Known as "prior-prior year," that change made the application quicker and easier for students (at least before the automatic IRS data-retrieval tool was shut down for security reasons).

As we reported last year, many colleges and universities didn't expect to change their timelines for making financial-aid decisions, because of entrenched admissions timelines and state budgeting cycles. The NASFAA report confirms that projected pattern.

Some colleges and universities reported in the NASFAA survey that even though they sent out aid decisions earlier, they were surprised to find that students didn't make their college decisions any sooner. NASFAA officials surmised that students might have put off those decisions until they received aid awards from other colleges later, or might simply have taken advantage of the longer window to evaluate their options. 


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