THE BLOG
09/14/2016 10:54 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2016

Start FAFSA Now!

There's a big change coming on October 1st for FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And if you miss out on the new, earlier deadline, you just might miss out on a lot of money! So if you're the parent of a high school senior (or a student already in college seeking aid for next year), here are the new FAFSA rules - and some tips for getting the most financial aid for college.

1. FAFSA "starts" October 1st. The availability of the application for college year 2017-2018 starts in the fall of the year before the money will be granted - instead of the previous start date on January 1st. The online application, which is available for free and only at www.FAFSA.gov, will be posted on October 1, 2016.

Families that file online will receive their Student Aid Report (SAR) and Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Student Aid Report (SAR) within a week of completed filing (as opposed to 2-4 weeks for those filing by mail).

Having that information early, in the midst of the application period, will help students and families make smarter choices about college affordability.

2. Tax Return from 2015 is used. In the past, when the application process started in January, families were required to guestimate their income for the year just ended. The new process means you will use income from the parents' already-filed 2015 tax return.

That information will be automatically imported into the FAFSA, using a special IRS data retrieval tool.

3. First Come, First Served. Most financial aid - including federal, state, and private scholarships -- is meted out in order of application. Some state and other aid programs have moved up their application timelines, knowing that the FAFSA is now available three months earlier. So if you wait until January to think about FAFSA, you might miss out on available money. Procrastination is expensive!

4. Tip: Get FAFSA ID# Now! Even though you can't start filling out the application until October 1st, you can go online to www.FAFSA.gov and get your user-created ID and password for accessing the form securely. That will make it easier to get to the starting line.

5. Tip: List Schools on FAFSA Even though you haven't decided on all the schools to which you will apply, it pays to list your top choices. Many states award financial aid based on your in-state school preferences. NOTE: Other schools won't see your list, but state aid-granting agencies will.

The new, earlier filing deadline is bound to bring some confusion. Your family situation and income may have changed drastically since your tax return for 2015 was filed last April. If so, you should contact the schools to which you are applying and inform them that the EFC may no longer be accurate, and that you may need a larger aid package.

And if you're "adjusting" income to qualify for more financial aid, you'll have to start earlier because of the new deadlines.

File FAFSA even if you don't think you'll qualify for federal aid. It's used in some scholarship programs. Rick Castellano of Sallie Mae (the largest originator of private student loans at over $4 billion a year), notes that about 2 million students who would have qualified for Federal Pell Grants - free money that doesn't have to be repaid - didn't get the grants since they didn't file FAFSA!

You can access Sallie Mae's Beginner's Guide to FAFSA here. And if you don't get enough federal aid, Sallie Mae's private Smart Option loans have variable rates that start as low as 2.5 percent, and are typically priced on the credit status of a co-signer.

Start now to make the most of the aid that is available. The early bird gets the worm - and this year the early bird starts hunting on October 1st. That's the Savage Truth.

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