FAFSA changes students need to know

As students, we all know that the cost of an education is not cheap. Tuition, books, supplies, transportation – the list of charges goes on and on, and there never seems to be enough money to cover it all.

If you have received any help in paying for your college, be it scholarships, grants or loans, you have most likely filled out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is the online tool the government uses to help schools determine how much assistance, be it grants or scholarships, each student should be eligible for.

The way it works is, you log on to the FAFSA website and put in your personal information and tax return information from the previous year if you’re over 24, or your parents’ tax returns if you’re under 24. The school then determines what help you should be getting based on how much income et al. you or your parents claimed on taxes.

The reason this matters is, if you made $75,000 last year, you are probably going to have an easier time paying for school this year compared to someone who made only $18,000.

This is the way the government has done things for many years, and the process seems to have worked out well.

However, the 2017-18 school year is marked for significant change. This year, the U.S. Department of Education (or D.O.E) has decided that instead of using last year’s tax returns, they will instead be using your 2014-2015 tax returns.

According to the D.O.E., this was done to help streamline the process, helping people get their FAFSAs submitted earlier (you can now start them in October) and helping to improve accuracy. But as you might imagine, this brings the possibility of major downsides for people who have had some changes in their income since 2015. With the changes, FAFSA only counts 2015, so if you made a lot that year but didn’t make much in 2016, it doesn’t matter – you’re still going to get only what you qualified for in 2015, and no more.

There is hope, though.

The D.O.E. says schools can make changes and include the newer year’s tax returns if they think it’s warranted. Mt. Hood and other schools across the nation will have to decide what they want to include, and how, to determine student financial aid eligibility, according to Christi Hart, MHCC’s director of financial aid.

Hart said it has always been the case that the school can make as needed adjustments after they receive a student’s FAFSA information. Usually, however, the adjustments aren’t actually made until after the majority of students have already received their aid, for example, in late October during the fall term.

She went on to say that there was not a specific date on which Mt. Hood will decide how it wants to proceed with financial aid for the 2017-2018 school year. There also is no set date for when students will know if the school has agreed to consider new tax information when assessing their aid eligibility.

Now, while this might not affect every student in a negative way, for those who are impacted, there can be a huge difference in how much money they are going to have available for school in the coming year.

Another potential problem, assuming the school makes adjustments to the students’ aid, is the delay in what those students need to know in order to plan before the start of their term. If they don’t know how much money they are going to get by the time class begins in September, they don’t know if they will need a part-time job to cover their school expense or if they can devote all of their time to study.

The D.O.E. may have had good intentions in making this change, but there are real concerns that these can leave students and parents frustrated when it comes to tuition.

Schools across the nation, Mt. Hood included, will hopefully find a way to help cover the people negatively impacted by this change, and able to enact its new process early enough in the school year so that students don’t suffer.

Students must make sure that they keep this in mind in the current, and any future, years that they fill out their FAFSA forms. This could potentially be a major hurdle they should watch out for.

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