Big changes are being implemented for student aid that will allow families to file their applications earlier and more easily. New changes might also make the underused 529 savings plan more useful.
Financial advisors should be aware that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can now be filed as early as October 1 the year before students attend school—meaning that families filing for the 2017-2018 school year can file on Saturday, three months earlier than they were previously able to.
“This is when the window opens; it’s not a deadline per se, but the rule of thumb with financial aid is the sooner, the better,” says Matt Sommer, vice president and director of retirement at Denver-based Janus Capital. “We haven’t heard very much said about this change, but we know that there’s a struggle to decide how to plan for retirement versus how much to put away for college, and this is an issue that should be on [families’] minds.”
Even more significant to advisors, however, is that schools and federal agencies will now use household income from two years before the academic year to calculate a student’s aid award. That means families will use their 2015 tax return to file for 2017-2018 student aid.
Previously, families used their prior year tax return to calculate family income on a FAFSA—which often required them to estimate their income and submit the FAFSA before having their tax documents complete. Then they would have to amend the FAFSA later in the year to make sure it reflected their actual tax filings.
The scheduling change has implications for families who are filing a second FAFSA after submitting one for the 2016-2017 year, says Sommer.
“Because we’re in a transition period, a 2015 tax return now has to do double duty,” Sommer says. “If a family was well positioned in 2015 to maximize the student’s aid award, they’ll have an advantage.”
The earlier filing date also allows families more flexibility in their college financial planning, says Sommer, because under the previous time line students were often not informed of their financial aid rewards until late in the application process.
“It takes the guesswork out of the equation and streamlines the whole process of applying for aid,” Sommer says.
The FAFSA rules about 529 savings plans, which affect the family income estimate, have also changed, says Sommer.