Fafsa Changes May Prompt Colleges to Shift Admissions Cycles Earlier

A new study has found that more than two-thirds of colleges plan to make significant changes in the enrollment process because of new rules taking effect this fall for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the Fafsa. The new policies, championed by President Obama, will allow applicants to submit the Fafsa as early as October and use tax data from two years prior, known as “prior-prior year” data. (Until now, students could use tax data only from the previous year.)

Those alterations will allow students to receive earlier estimates of their aid eligibility and could encourage them to submit their Fafsa forms sooner, before the scholarship deadlines set by many states, colleges, and outside groups. And according to the new study, which was produced by Cegment Inc., a education-technology company, the rule changes will have a large impact on colleges as well. Here are some of the changes colleges are considering:

Most of the 543 college professionals surveyed said their institutions expect to alter their financial-aid timelines:

  • 69 percent plan to offer final financial-aid awards earlier than they did previously.
  • 56 percent will provide earlier communication of pricing, aid eligibility, and estimated-award letters to prospective students.
  • A little under half plan to do both.

Also, a good portion of respondents said their institutions would shift their admissions timelines:

  • 37 percent plan to move the timing by offering earlier application availability, earlier deadlines, and/or earlier admissions decisions.
  • Half of institutions will have more “aggressive engagement” with prospective students in their junior year.
  • A quarter plan to institute an “early decision” or “early action” program.

As for the long-term effects, the study found little consensus. Some respondents remarked on the benefits the new Fafsa system could provide students and their families: “Hopefully less diving in head first and hoping things will pan out before the September bill arrives,” wrote an admissions professional at a private nonprofit institution.

Others predicted a more competitive financial-aid market: “It will cause families to more carefully consider their financial options, but may also increase the frequency of financial appeals. In doing so, it could exacerbate the merit-aid arms race,” wrote a director of admissions at a private four-year institution.

Regardless of the effects, most respondents acknowledged that colleges would have to adapt in some fashion: Eighty percent agreed that institutions that do not shift their admissions and financial-aid cycles earlier will be at a competitive disadvantage compared with those that do.

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