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October 13, 2016

Early FAFSA start date could mean incomplete aid offers

Diploma with moneyAn earlier starting date for the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is intended to give students more time to apply for financial aid but could result in students across the country getting incomplete aid offers, Pitt officials say.

The changes to financial aid deadlines have a “really good intent,” says Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA), but “the challenge is the details and the consequences that no one has thought through. And then how do you manage 4,000 universities doing it differently? That’s where it’s going to get interesting.”

Eight months ago, the Obama administration notified the country’s universities and colleges that it was moving the yearly starting date when students could access the lengthy online FAFSA form from Jan. 1 to the previous Oct. 1. For the first time, the FAFSA also will allow students to upload the previous year’s tax forms — their own and their parents’, if they are dependents. Previously, FAFSA users had to wait until April of the year they hoped to enter school to upload just-completed tax forms from the IRS website to the FAFSA. Only then could most schools make a final financial aid determination.

The change was instituted to give students a longer window to fill out the FAFSA, with the intention of attracting more use of the form by those from a lower economic status. With a longer application window, such students, who historically have lower FAFSA participation rates, may have time to find the right funding through the right college.

The October start to FAFSA season also may give universities a chance to send out financial aid offers earlier, though the earlier offers could be incomplete.

National reports show at least 66 percent of institutions are planning to make changes to financial aid notifications or priority admissions deadlines as a result of the new FAFSA rules.

The earlier FAFSA opening also gives students longer to consider and reconsider their college choice, including more time to play one college’s offer of an aid package against another’s by negotiating with colleges.

In an Aug. 8 letter from under secretary of education Ted Mitchell to college chancellors and presidents, posted on the U.S. Department of Education website, he urged higher education institutions to “consider providing earlier award notifications in order to maximize the benefits to students and their families.

“I ask you not to move any priority financial aid deadlines earlier than your deadlines for recent years,” he added. “Moving institutional aid deadlines earlier could put undue pressure on high school seniors to rush through the financial aid and college admissions process, counteracting one of the main benefits of an early FAFSA — more time to explore and apply to schools. […] Early priority aid deadlines most negatively impact students from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students who often have the least amount of information and support [during] the college financial aid and admissions application processes.”


Figuring out how to handle the changes has been a challenge, say Pitt’s Harding and Randy McCready, director of financial aid. Pitt already has moved up the date it sends financial aid notices to students from March or April in previous years to Feb. 1.  Harding says Pitt wants to make the awards early enough for students to have the necessary financial aid information before making their enrollment decisions, but not so early that students have incomplete information.

The University is keeping May 1 as its national candidate reply date — the deadline for freshmen to commit to Pitt.

Harding sees “really good intent here [in] trying to expand the higher education pipeline for families coming from lower economic standards.”

“For first-generation college families,” adds McCready, “this gives them more time to see that there are options out there.”

But Harding believes there will be several challenges stemming from the new rules.

For one, how can universities send out accurate financial aid offers as early as October when tuition levels for the following school year may not yet be set? For another, federal Pell grants and aid from state agencies, such as Pennsylvania’s PHEAA, are not officially approved until later — May 1 in PHEAA’s case.

Financial aid packages could be adjusted each time additional information is received. “You could end up with two, three, four, five award letters” with newly calibrated financial aid, Harding says. That would prevent students from incorporating accurate financial aid information into their college decisions till long past October.

Harding predicts Pitt will get calls beginning this month from students “saying, ‘I got my package from X University. Why don’t I have my package from you?’ My concern: Students and families are basically going to have incomplete information. They’re going to have information earlier but they’re not going to have the correct information.”

“The good thing here is it’s just as challenging to every other college and university,” McCready says. But he also guesses that the earlier FAFSA deadline will mean those who rushed to fill out the form in January now will hurry to complete it in October, while the target of this White House effort — high school grads with less family support in their college application efforts — still will not be finishing the form until the final FAFSA deadline each year.


Both OAFA officials expect the change in rules to affect the Pittsburgh campus but not the regionals, since Pittsburgh is more selective in choosing among applicants. Colleges with less-competitive admissions, Harding and McCready posit, likely will want to award financial aid packages earliest, to encourage students to commit to them.

Says Harding: “Most universities of our selectivity are waiting … to see how this shakes out,” guessing that they will need to make more adjustments in their institutional deadlines next year.

He is uncertain how the new FAFSA procedures will affect the number of applications Pitt receives or the yield — the number of students accepted by Pitt who ultimately decide to come here.

To help students through the changes, OAFA is using all its communication channels, including social media and students’ campus visits, to talk about the changes.

“Anyone who says they know what will happen,” Harding concludes, “they must have the help of a crystal ball.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 4

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