College-bound students and those already on campus have an important date to mark on their calendars this fall: October 1.

That’s when you can begin filing the paperwork needed to get financial aid for the 2017-2018 academic year. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid—FAFSA—is used to determine how much aid you’ll get in the form of loans, grants, work-study programs, and scholarships from the federal government as well as states, colleges, and even scholarship-granting organizations.

Previously, the application wasn’t available until January 1. The new date gives students more time to fill out the form, and makes it easier for those heading to college for the first time next fall to factor in cost as they choose schools to apply to.

“Choosing a college is about social fit, academic fit, and financial fit. This lets students and their families think about the financial aspect at the beginning of the process,” says Abigail Seldin, vice president of innovation and product management for nonprofit education company ECMC, which offers a free college-cost search tool called College Abacus

How to Get an Earlier Estimate of College Costs

Depending on whether you file online or on paper, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR) from the Department of Education three days to three weeks after submitting your FAFSA paperwork. The SAR tells you whether you qualify for federal need-based aid such as federal Pell Grants and work-study programs. Your FAFSA is also submitted for you to the schools you list on the application.

The SAR won’t tell you how much financial aid, in the form of grants and scholarships, you’ll get from the colleges you want to attend. Schools use the FAFSA info to see what government aid you qualify for, but it's the college that determines your total aid package. The amount can vary significantly by college; some may have their own funds to use for financial aid. “Every school has its own financial aid formula,” says Seldin.

But you can use the SAR information to get a more precise picture of just how much a school will cost before you apply to it. Every school has a net price calculator (NPC), which will tell you what the school costs after subtracting expected grants and scholarships. Go to your school's website to use their NPC or to a site like College Abacus, which compares results of NPCs from about 5,000 schools.
 

What the Changes Mean for You

In addition to the FAFSA application date moving up, there are several other changes this year that you should know about.

  • You’ll use last year’s tax return. Previously, you had to enter tax information from your prior year’s tax filing. That meant that if you wanted to apply when the FAFSA first became available, in January, you had to estimate important financial information, such as your income and assets, and then later update it when you filed your return. Now you can use tax information from two years prior to the academic year in which you plan to attend school. So if you’re applying for financial aid for the 2017-2018 school year, you can now use 2015 tax data. What if you want to use 2016 tax information because you think it’ll benefit you? You can’t. Even if your income was lower in 2016 than in 2015, you still need to provide 2015 tax information. But you can contact the financial aid offices at the schools you plan to apply to and let them know your situation has changed.
  • You must apply again. If you filed your most recent FAFSA using your 2015 tax data, don’t assume you won’t have to file again this year or even that you'll get the same financial aid offer. You have to file a FAFSA every year to get financial aid, and it behooves you to do it. Factors used to calculate your aid, including your year in school, family income, and cost of attendance, could change each year. Use the IRS data retrieval tool offered online to directly import your tax information. That’ll speed up the FAFSA completion process and reduce errors.
  • School deadlines may be different. Traditionally, colleges sent out financial aid offer letters in March or April. The Department of Education sent a letter last month encouraging schools not to change their priority deadline (that's the date by which you must file your FAFSA to be considered for the most money). But 77 percent of schools surveyed by Cegment, which makes college enrollment software, say they will send aid award letters earlier. A few schools are also moving up deadlines for college admission, so check both aid and admission deadlines with each school you are targeting. What if you don’t know what schools you want to apply to yet? You only need to list one school to complete the paperwork. But it's better to include every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet, according to the Department of Education, which is providing guidance about the changes on its blog. Doing so will hold your place in line for financial aid in case you end up applying to that school. You can always add schools later.

One thing that's as true this year as last: You should file the FAFSA as soon as possible. Some states, colleges, and scholarship programs give out money on a first-come, first-served basis. Even some federal aid, such as on-campus work study, is based on when you apply.

With the FAFSA's release three months earlier this year, aid money may be depleted faster than in the past, making it more important than ever to file your FAFSA as soon as the application is available in October, says Seldin.