FAFSA opens earlier for 2017-18 school year

GVL/Archive - Sydney Wiltshire helps a student in the Financial Aid office on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Allendale.


GVL/Archive – Sydney Wiltshire helps a student in the Financial Aid office on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2016 in Allendale.

Dylan Grosser

Normally, students begin filling out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) after January, when their parents have an idea of how much money they can say they’ve made in a year. But this year, the U.S. Department of Education opened the FAFSA Saturday, Oct. 1, allowing students more time to fill it out by using their parents’ 2015 tax information instead of their most recent tax filing.

A FAFSA is a necessary electronic form students in higher education must fill out if they are seeking federal financial aid, including loans or grants. It is not required by Grand Valley State University, but the rules for its requirement change depending on the academic institution. The priority deadline for the FAFSA at Grand Valley State University is Wednesday, March 1.

Financial aid director Michelle Rhodes said oftentimes there are students who need to provide additional tax information to the financial aid office after they submit their FAFSA, and sometimes it can be a “rush” to get everything in correctly. She said the increased deadline helps in those situations.

“From my perspective, moving up the deadline is all positive,” Rhodes said. “It just allows students a longer period of time to make those changes. It gives longer time to allow us to work with those students, once we get that form from them.”

Rhodes said students having to use tax information from years prior could be a good thing or a bad thing. She said there are families whose income varies greatly from year to year, which could affect their eligibility for aid. Rhodes said the extra time allows the financial aid office to work with families who fall into the category of “special circumstances” and provide them with some accommodations. Rhodes said it all depends on how early students file their FAFSA.

“When some students file, they’re not happy they have to use their 2015 information because it doesn’t accurately reflect their income, but all they need to do is contact us and we can absolutely work through that situation with them,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said the financial aid office does a lot of outreach with families and students, including sending emails and being active on Facebook and Twitter. She said the office offers many opportunities for students to connect with them if they need help, which include walk-in hours for the office, and she said students can also call the office at any time.

Students who miss the priority deadline of March 1 could end up losing thousands of dollars in awards or loans, which is why Rhodes said her office is committed to increasing its outreach.

“We realize that every student comes from a different background and situation, and we like to help them figure out what is best for them,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said there are a number of things students can do to help make college more affordable for themselves. She said it’s important for students to understand how much things cost, to understand the loans they may be taking out and to understand the importance of applying for scholarships. Rhodes said the financial aid office has a database of scholarships open from Oct. 1 to March 1 students may use to apply for scholarships.

“We don’t want a student to graduate and all of a sudden realize how much debt they may have accumulated because they just took whatever was offered to them without really understanding it,” Rhodes said.

The office does workshops with students, along with a financial literacy program the office sponsors called MoneySmart Lakers, which helps students understand their finances and how to manage their money. Overall, Rhodes said the most important thing a student could do to help themselves would be to ask questions.

“If they’re not understanding something, we’re more than happy to help explain it to them, because that’s part of our mission,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes recommends students to fill out their FAFSA now, and said students have “no reason to wait.” Students can always call the financial aid office if they have any questions about the process at (616) 331-3234.