Students can apply for Promise, other financial aid sooner

Jake Jarvis , Staff writer

The application which determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid to go to college and several of the state’s scholarships will be available sooner this year.

Instead of waiting until of Jan. 1, 2017, to start the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is a required application that determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid, students will be able to start the application on Oct. 1 this year.

Applications for three West Virginia scholarships (the Promise Scholarship; the Engineering, Science and Technology Scholarship; and the Underwood-Smith Teacher Scholarship) also will become available at the beginning of October.

“We’re hoping this increases the number of students applying for FAFSA, because it gives us more time to get out into these schools to help people fill out the FAFSA and answer questions,” said Brian Weingart, the Higher Education Policy Commission’s senior director for financial aid.

The deadline to apply for the Promise Scholarship is March 1 every year, and students must complete the FAFSA by that date to be eligible. Previously, when the FAFSA application became available in January, that only gave students two months to complete the entire process.

Weingart said schools had a hard time getting students to meet those deadlines in the winter months when snow days are sometimes frequent.

The FAFSA also requires students to input information about their family’s earnings, which is taken from the family’s tax returns. In previous years, a student would use the most recent tax information, even if they hadn’t filed their taxes yet, to complete the application.

“Students filled [FAFSA] out in January, they didn’t have their W-2s and they didn’t have their taxes done,” Weingart said. “They had to estimate that information in order to get it in, but then they had to go back in and correct that information after they filed their taxes. They didn’t hear from the schools about any kind of financial aid until the end of March or beginning of April for a bill they have to pay in July.”

This year, students completing the FAFSA will use older tax information.
Students completing the FAFSA to attend school in fall of 2017 will use their tax returns from 2015, the same returns they used when applying for aid for this current fall semester.

Next year, as students complete the FAFSA to go to school in fall 2018, they will use their tax returns from 2016.

“Changing the tax year to use 2015, which is already completed, means students won’t have to go back in and correct it,” Weingart said. “This allows colleges to get their award letters out earlier.”

Commission staff members are preparing to host a workshop at 12 locations across the state to update high school guidance counselors on all of the new changes.

“A lot of our schools are really coming around to the idea that completing the FAFSA is a really good benchmark to raise their college-going rate, so they’re really putting a big focus on it,” said Jessica Kennedy, commission spokeswoman. “Brian’s office has a really cool tool where counselors can log into a secure database and view which of their students have completed the FAFSA.”

That database doesn’t show specific information about the student to protect their privacy, but it allows counselors to hone in on students who haven’t completed the application.

“[FAFSA] is something that is intimidating, but it’s not as hard as it used to be,” Kennedy said. “That perception is still there, so a lot of students get hung up on that. Our schools that really focus on getting students over that hurdle are seeing a lot of growth.”

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