College admission season is approaching fast. And because of a new date for federal financial aid applications, many students will be getting financial aid offers earlier from colleges that accept them. 

survey from the education research company EAB found that 26 percent of colleges are releasing notices about financial aid packages four to eight weeks earlier than last year; 31 percent are sending the information two to three weeks earlier.

That change gives students more time to weigh cost when deciding which school to attend and how they’ll finance the expense.

“How much you’re going to pay for school is one of the most important aspects of deciding where to go to college,” says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

File Your FAFSA Soon

The shift to earlier financial aid offers follows a change in the date that you can apply for federal financial aid. If you'll be attending college in the 2017-18 school year, you can now file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as Oct. 1. (It used to be Jan. 1.) Many students are doing just that: Schools that participated in the EAB poll said they had received about one-third of FAFSA applications already.

All of this aligns better with the college admission cycle. In most cases, students must make a decision about which school to attend by May 1. But many of them don’t complete the FAFSA until after they file their previous year’s taxes. Now, along with the new FAFSA application date, you can use your tax return from the previous year’s filing to provide income and asset information needed to fill out the FAFSA.

That means students applying to college for the 2017-18 academic year can input 2015 tax-return information.

(Note that you must always use your tax return from two years ago for the FAFSA, even if last year’s tax return may be more favorable for financial aid. For 2017-18, that means you can’t use your 2016 tax return, even if you file it before completing the FAFSA.)

Completing the FAFSA is critical to understanding how much financial aid you will get for school. States, colleges, and many scholarship programs use it to determine financial aid awards, and many have deadlines in February and March or give out money on a first-come, first-served basis. That means the sooner you complete the FAFSA, the more money you are likely to get.

With the new FAFSA filing date, some states and schools might move up the deadlines for aid, Draeger says, so check with the colleges. You can find state financial aid deadlines on the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid website.

How to Decode Your Financial Aid Offer

It’s great to have more time to weigh financial aid packages, but offer letters can be confusing. Here's what you need to understand when you get one:

The real cost of college. There are published tuition rates and then there’s what it will actually cost to go to a school based on your own financial picture. Your financial aid award letter will give you this information. Look at the "total cost of attendance" number on the school lists. Then subtract grants and scholarships (that’s money you don’t have to pay back) to get the net price. Be sure to account for all expenses.

Some schools report total cost as tuition, fees, and room and board. Others include books, transportation, school-activity fees and living expenses. You’ll want to factor in all of those costs if the school doesn't. Remember that you might need to budget more for expenses, which could include everything from doing laundry to buying plane tickets home.

The kind of aid you’re being offered. Your financial aid package is likely to be a mix of grants, scholarships, loans, and programs such as work-study. But there's no standardized terminology. Scholarships and grants, for example, could be listed as merit aid.

There are different types of federal loans, subsidized and unsubsidized. Some schools include Parent PLUS loans, which parents can take out on behalf of dependents. To decode information, check out NASFAA’s glossary of terms. The Department of Education has developed a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, a standardized offer letter that it wants schools to use to make it easier to compare financial aid packages. But only about half of schools use it. If you’re confused, contact the college’s financial aid office.

The total cost. The financial aid offer letter lists only what you will get for the coming academic year. Think about how much college will cost to get a two-year or four-year degree and how much aid you'll get over that time, Draeger says.

Some schools award more grant money upfront to entice you to enroll and then reduce the amount in later years. Ask which scholarships and grants are renewable and what the requirements are to qualify each year. You might need to maintain a certain GPA, for example. Even if the amount of the grant and the scholarship you get stays the same, keep in mind that tuition could rise.

Once you understand the offer in your award letter, use a tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help you compare school costs.