Keeping up with the college application process and its myriad deadlines isn’t for the faint of heart, but this year includes more changes than usual for the high school class of 2017. Families will want to pay extra attention to avoid missing something. Here’s what’s up for the 2016-17 year.
1) FAFSA Opens in October: For years, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opened on January 1 for seniors. This year, the FAFSA application will open on October 1, three months earlier. Instead of waiting to file your taxes, you will use information from your 2015 tax return, and if you’re eligible to use the IRS data retrieval tool, the FAFSA will be much easier to complete. Your family should fill out the FAFSA even if your child is undecided on where to attend because you don’t want to miss out on financial aid.
2) FAFSA prior-prior year tax information: In a monumental shift from the past, the FAFSA will use prior-prior tax information from now on. So this October, your family will use 2015’s tax return for the 2017-18 academic year, and in 2017, you’ll use your 2016 return for the 2018-19 year. The idea is to allow families to receive financial aid award offers earlier in the application process, well before April, to give them time to assess college costs and best financial fit for their family.
3) Common Application: This year, for the first time, student accounts will now roll over to the next year. That means juniors can create an account now and not lose information before their senior year. Plus the Common Application’s 2016-17 essay prompts will be the same as last year’s prompts. This year’s application is also expanding gender identity options to better reflect today’s students and a more fluid view of gender. The Common App is accepted by more than 600 colleges.
4) Coalition Application: The new Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success application now has more 90 member colleges, with 53 of them accepting Coalition applications from the class of 2017, and 38 joining in the following year (2017-18). Some Coalition schools will accept either the Coalition App or the Common App this year , so be sure to double check your colleges for which application they want (the University of Washington, for example, is now a Coalition college and won’t take the Common App because it’s not a Common App school).
5) New SAT scores: Most students in the class of 2017 will take the new SAT, and it’s important to know the scores don’t compare to the old SAT. In fact, even though the tests are scored with the same scoring system, the new scores run higher. That doesn’t mean students are performing better, it means they took a different test that measures different skills. Colleges will be converting the scores to compare them against old SAT scores. Students can compare their new scores against the old SAT by using the College Board’s score converter. Take a look at these 360 colleges to find out how your scores fit into the new SAT score range.
For the class of 2017, colleges will be accepting both old and new SAT scores, but they won’t superscore between the two tests. The writing portion is optional for many colleges, but it may be worth completing it just to keep college options open to you.
For the class of 2018, colleges haven’t firmed up their policy yet on new/old test scores. To get around this bumpy transition, consider having your child take the ACT. You might also check with your high school college counselors at school to find out what they think is best.
6) More test optional schools: A growing number of institutions have become test optional because they realize the limitations of standardized test scores. Not all students do well even though they may have a strong academic record, and they’ll benefit from the test optional status. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing provides the most complete list of test-optional colleges, current as of summer 2016. But if your student has strong scores, there’s no reason not to submit them, especially if the college requires other tests instead that are equally or more challenging.
7) New loan interest rate: Good news for families! Federal college loan interest rates will drop by half a percent on loans issued after July 1, 2016. Student loans are dropping to 3.76 percent from 4.29 percent. Parent PLUS loans are dropping to 6.31 percent from 6.84 percent.
8) Colleges with tuition cuts: More good news! Some colleges are actually lowering tuition. Washington state’s public universities are reducing tuition by 15 percent for the 2016-17 year. (University of Washington and Washington State University tuition are reducing 10 percent). Utica College is slashing tuition a full 42 percent! Here are the 10 colleges cutting costs for students next year.
My advice: stay tuned on the details. Check directly with the colleges your student is interested in and chat with your high school college counselor for recommendations or answers to questions. Everyone is navigating together, so the answers may still be a work in progress.
Joanna Nesbit is a staff writer for Road2College with a special interest in college finance. She’s the mother of a college sophomore and high school junior. Learn more about her at www.joannanesbit.com and follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.
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