Colleges are taking varied approaches to the first year of the new early FAFSA process, Beckie Supiano reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Beginning Oct. 1, 2016, students and families seeking college admission for fall of 2017 will be able to complete the FAFSA using their 2015 tax information. The prior-prior year change provides several possible benefits for prospective college freshmen and their families, including:
- Application timing that permits streamlined FAFSA completion through the IRS Direct Retrieval tool;
- Earlier access to Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) scores; and
- Longer timeframes to consider college costs and evaluate institutional aid packages.
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More than two-thirds of colleges plan to make significant changes to their enrollment procedures in response to the new process, according to a survey from education technology company Cegment.
However, individual colleges are handling the changes quite differently from one another in a "stratified response," according to Nathan Mueller, a principal with the consulting firm Hardwick Day. While certain colleges—particularly private institutions with rolling admissions—are embracing the early FAFSA, others are taking a wait-and-see approach or don't think the new process will have a significant effect on them.
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The University of Denver will set tuition in September instead of January, pairing final aid awards with early-action and early-decision admissions offers in December. The university will also offer earlier awards for applicants in the second early decision cycle in February.
Susquehanna University will also send earlier aid awards during its rolling admissions period, as well as offer returning students earlier aid awards. The changes will mostly benefit families, who will have a longer time to mull over their aid awards.
But the new process could cause problems for colleges, according to Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Susquehanna. With a longer lag time, students might lose interest in a university or even fail to enroll altogether.
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Despite these concerns, the new process serves an important purpose, Rhyneer says. More than one quarter of Susquehanna students receive Pell Grants, while about one third are first-generation students. Such groups are the ones who have the most to gain from the early FAFSA.
Michael Miller, interim assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management and financial aid director, says that at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "We are in the camp of not doing much of anything initially." He believes the new process could be confusing to students applying to California public institutions because prospective students can apply for financial aid before applying for admission, but Miller says he supports getting financial aid information to students in a timely manner.
Some higher education leaders fear that the new changes would put underserved students at a disadvantage. In response to the new FAFSA process, some colleges have moved up their priority deadlines, meaning that low-income students who need more time to consider their options will be offered smaller aid packages.
However, Hardwick Day has recommended that colleges implement more priority deadlines to provide a "nudge for students to submit the FAFSA," according to Mueller. This can be accomplished without offering less aid to students who miss deadlines (Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/15).
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