FAFSA filing season begins Oct. 1: What does this mean for students?

The school year is in full swing for students, and for those preparing to apply for college, or submit paperwork for next year’s financial aid, the process will begin about three months earlier this year.

Beginning this year, filing for federal financial aid through the FAFSA form launches Oct. 1. Previously, families and students had to wait until Jan. 1 to begin applying. Another change lets applicants file the form using completed tax information that can be retrieved directly from the IRS and automatically filled in on the FAFSA form, instead of estimating income and tax information as they had to do before.

The changes will apply to students applying to college for the 2017-2018 school year. Georgia's two U.S. Senators had signed on to legislation that would have cut the multi-question form to just two questions. That bill was not passed, but the federal government is streamlining the application process to better align financial aid application with the college admission season.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Ron Day, director of financial aid at Kennesaw State University, to explain more of the details and the impact for Georgia students. During his more than 30-year career, Day has held various leadership positions in the national and state Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Q: What is FAFSA?

A: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the form used annually to determine eligibility for financial aid, including federal grants, loans and work-study programs, and scholarships at some schools. Asking questions about a family's income, household size and assets also determines how much money families and students can contribute toward their college education.

Q: What’s new?

A: Beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, students may begin filling out the FAFSA on Oct. 1 and use tax data from 2015. This will enable students to file early and know their awards quicker, which should allow families to better compare schools, and determine their college costs earlier.

The changes should also allow college admissions offices to better align their processes. Admissions decisions and award decisions can now be made at the same time.

Q: Should all students fill out the form?

A: Yes. All students are eligible for federal assistance regardless of family income. Therefore, each student should complete the FAFSA at least once, and complete it as early as possible. Funding often has limits, and is sometimes awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

More than one million students — including 46 percent in Georgia — did not fill out the form in 2014, and missed out on about $2.7 billion in financial aid, according to a January report by NerdWallet.

Q: What's next, and how can students get help?

A: Students can get help preparing for the Oct. 1 application start at www.fafsa.gov and www.studentaid.gov. School counselors and admissions offices can also help.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

The AJC has created the The Ultimate Atlanta School Guide that lets you look at and compare critical data for every school in Georgia. You can find it at http://schools.myajc.com/#/schools