How to Pay for College

"Prior-Prior" Policy Makes for Easier FAFSA Filing

It just might be the most dreaded part of the college application process: FAFSA! But, there’s some good news surrounding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — and the high school cohort of 2017 will be the first to benefit.

Buzz filling out a FAFSA form.

Thanks to the new Prior-Prior Year policy (PPY), beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year, students will no longer need to wait until January to begin the FAFSA process.

That’s because they’ll be able to file the FAFSA using tax information from two years prior.

Why should this news excite financial aid applicants?

In a few words: more time and more accurate information.

For starters, PPY eliminates the stress associated with rushing to file taxes at the very beginning of the year.

“When using prior year [instead of prior-prior year] information, many families felt they had to race against the clock to complete their taxes before filling out the FAFSA in order to meet state or school-based deadlines,” says Mandy Sponholtz, policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). 

“But, once the government implements PPY, families would have completed their taxes months before the FAFSA is available.”

“Many families felt they had to race against the clock to complete their taxes before filling out the FAFSA.”
- Mandy Sponholtz

Added to that, PPY allows for use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which automatically populates tax information into the FAFSA.

“This process speeds up application time and provides more accurate tax data on the application,” Sponholtz said.

But this development isn’t of value only to college applicants and their parents.  

According to Marie Mons, director of the Office of Scholarships & Financial aid at Georgia Tech, “This change is important to Georgia Tech and will help us continue to strive toward one of the Institute’s strategic goals of promoting access and encouraging diversity. It is very important for high school scholars aspiring for higher education — especially those from economically disadvantaged or financially challenging backgrounds — to know as early as possible that financial aid resources are available.” 

“It is very important for high school scholars aspiring for higher education to know as early as possible that financial aid resources are available.”
- Marie Mons

But, despite the fact that the introduction of PPY is certainly a change to look forward to in the aid application process, Sponholtz says there are some expectations to be kept in check.

“There are a lot of pieces to making a financial aid award package for students, and the FAFSA is only one component. Even though the application will be available earlier, it may not necessarily mean that award notices will be out sooner,” Sponholtz said.

“Financial aid offices must wait for information from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and state and/or local boards in order to calculate a student’s eligibility for aid. Some schools may want to provide the information as quickly as possible, so they may estimate and/or revise awards as this information is finalized. Other schools may wait until they have the final data before making award packages.”

So, she says, this is why it is so important that applicants visit the prospective school’s website to learn more about when to expect an award notification and why it’s necessary to ask the financial aid office specifics about aid eligibility.

Another thing applicants must keep in mind in light of the introduction of this new policy is that they should compare their current financial situation to the data provided on their FAFSA using PPY. 

“If your family’s income has changed significantly, such as due to a loss of income or because of medical expenses, the financial aid office may be able to revise your data via professional judgment to more accurately reflect your current situation.

Be aware, however, that even if your FAFSA data changes, your financial aid package may remain the same. Before you complete a professional judgment application, talk with your financial aid office to see if submitting all the necessary paperwork will make a difference in your financial aid awards,” Sponholtz advised.

Learn More about the Prior-Prior Year Policy

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With the price of higher education rising much faster than inflation, many students and families find themselves struggling to pay for college, or looking for ways to reduce or offset the costs. The "How to Pay for College" series is designed to help, with expert advice and creative ways for meeting this challenge.