If you plan to go to college next year, you need to know about two changes to the nationwide financial aid form.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form that every U.S. college student needs to fill out in order to be eligible for any need-based financial aid. That includes federal grants and loans, scholarships from the state and school, as well as college work-study jobs.
Here's what's new:
Change #1: You can now submit the FAFSA as early as October 1, rather than January 1. This isn't the deadline, but it's best to get the form in early because some aid awards are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
Change #2: The FAFSA asks for financial information reported on your federal tax return. Now, you can base your answers on your return from the previous year. This new policy is referred to as "prior-prior year" and should make it easier to answer the questions. You'll be able to use your 2015 federal tax returns this year, and you won't have to go back and update your form next spring when you file taxes again.
These changes aim to make the whole financial aid process a bit easier for you, but it remains a tedious and sometimes confusing task. Here are some tips:
Where do I start? Go to fafsa.ed.gov. If this is your first time filling out the form, you'll have to create an FSA ID. This basically acts as your user name and password for each year you apply -- so don't forget it.
What documents will I need? Yours and your parents' Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, federal tax returns, W-2 forms, and current bank and investment statements.
Does applying cost any money? No, it's free. Don't get duped into paying for a service that helps you fill out the form.
My family is middle class. Should I still apply? Yes. There's no income cap. And if you don't apply, you won't be able to get any financial aid. You can use the White House College Scorecard or the online calculator that each college must post on its website to get an idea of how much financial aid you might receive.
What is the deadline? There can be multiple deadlines. To receive federal grants and loans, you must submit the FAFSA by June 30, 2017. But colleges and states might have earlier deadlines -- and you could miss out on their money if you wait to apply.
I filled out the FAFSA last year. Do I have to do it again? Yes. You have to resubmit the FAFSA with updated financial information each year you're going to college.
My parents are divorced. Do I list both of their incomes? No. The parent you live with the most is the one you'll report financial information about. If that parent is remarried, you must include his or her income, too.
When do I find out how much money I'll get? Your financial aid award letter will be sent to you from the college. This usually comes in the spring, after you've been accepted.