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FAFSA is the KEY!

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the key that opens the door to financial aid. It serves as the application for most of the financial aid from federal and state programs and from colleges and universities. Even if you are not sure that you will need financial aid, we recommend that you fill out a FAFSA anyway -- it's free.

There are big changes to the FAFSA process for students filing the FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year. For the first time, students will be able to file the FAFSA as early as October 1, 2016, instead of beginning on January 1, 2017. This is a permanent change allowing students to complete and submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 each year.

The second big change for this year is from what was called "Prior-Year" to "Prior-Prior Year," or PPY income reporting. This means that students will be able to report their 2015 income information rather than their 2016 income information on their 2017-18 FAFSA. This will make it much easier for students to report income information on the FAFSA since their 2015 income will already have been reported on tax returns by April of 2016.

You should submit the FAFSA as soon after the official starting date, which is now October 1, as possible, making sure you meet any college or state deadlines. The quickest and most accurate way to file the FAFSA is online. In contrast to a paper copy, the online form displays only the data entry fields you need to complete. You also receive directions as you need them. The FAFSA site is also available in Spanish.

To complete the FAFSA you will need an FSA ID, a username and password that enables you to log in to some Department of Education websites.

One major benefit of the change from January 1 to October 1 for FAFSA income reporting is the ability for most students to be able to save time by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). This will also ensure your FAFSA tax information is accurate -- you won't have to worry about making mistakes since the IRS DRT transfers your tax information for you.

When you complete or update the FAFSA online, if you are eligible to use the IRS DRT, you will be taken the IRS website, where you can preview your tax information before agreeing to transfer it to the FAFSA. You can read more about this process and find out when your tax information will be available through the IRS DRT here.

If you prefer to fill out a paper copy of the FAFSA, you can obtain one by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID.

The FAFSA may not be the only form required to receive an award letter from a school. You must also complete the college admissions process. Check with each of the colleges and universities you listed on your FAFSA to determine their requirements.

If you filed your FAFSA electronically, you will receive an electronic Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few days of submitting your completed FAFSA. (SAR results may take three weeks if you filed a paper FAFSA.) The SAR is the result of your FAFSA. Read it immediately and follow any directions. The schools you list on the FAFSA will also receive results.