Changes to FAFSA process might squeeze MAP grant applicants, administrators say

The+Office+of+Financial+Aid%2C+1801+Hinman+Ave.%2C+shares+a+building+with+the+Office+of+Undergraduate+Admission.+This+year%2C+federal+grant+applications+are+available+earlier+to+help+low-income+students%2C+which+poses+a+challenge+for+Illinois+residents+eligible+for+the+Monetary+Award+Program+grant.

Daily file photo by Jeffrey Wang

The Office of Financial Aid, 1801 Hinman Ave., shares a building with the Office of Undergraduate Admission. This year, federal grant applications are available earlier to help low-income students, which poses a challenge for Illinois residents eligible for the Monetary Award Program grant.

Allyson Chiu, Assistant Campus Editor

Applications for federally-funded financial aid will open earlier this year, which may inconvenience in-state students eligible for Monetary Award Program grants.

This year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will become available Oct. 1 rather than Jan. 1, giving students more time to file their applications, said Brian Drabik, senior associate director of financial aid at the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid. The earlier date is a permanent change mandated by the Department of Education.

The new system will give students more time to file their applications, as the FAFSA used to become available in January.

“That’s a very small window of time for students who are already juggling a lot of school work,” Drabik said. “You have your high school senior projects you’re working on, you have your application materials you have to turn in for admission and then adding this on top is an additional burden on the (application) process.”

But Drabik said Illinois students eligible for a MAP grant may have trouble under the new system, as the grant is distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. The earlier FAFSA availability may make it more difficult for some students to secure a MAP grant, he said.

“We’re encouraging them to file as quickly as they can to ensure they’ve been reviewed for eligibility,” Drabik said. “We don’t want the date they completed the application to prohibit them from getting their funds.”

Drabik said he anticipates the cutoff for this year’s grants to be in November or December rather than March. The Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid is planning to send out reminders about the new deadlines, he added.

Missing the deadline for MAP grants could hurt many Northwestern students, said McCormick senior Steffany Bahamon, president of NU Quest Scholars Network.

“If you miss that cutoff date, you just can’t apply for it,” Bahamon said. “If you miss that deadline, all of a sudden you’re $1,000 short, and that makes a huge difference in your day-to-day life.”

Despite the impact on MAP grant applicants, the extra time will give families a better chance to provide updated financial information, which can yield a more accurate estimation of their aid award, said Christopher Watson, dean of undergraduate admissions.

Students will be able to use the “prior-prior year” method to fill out their FAFSAs, Drabik said. Under this process, when a student applies for the 2017-18 academic year, they will use income information from taxes filed in 2015.

This system eliminates the need to verify information, Drabik said. In previous years, if students were eligible for grants, they would have to prove the information on their applications matched their current tax records.

“You’re simplifying it for the student and making it less complicated,” Drabik said. “One of the hopes that’s coming out of this is that more students will now apply because all of these pieces are in place, so it’s not as much of a hurdle as it had been in the past.”

Although the goal of these changes was to give students more time, some colleges and universities are already making financial aid deadlines earlier.

NU is not one of them, Drabik said.

“The initial response is to leave things how they are,” he said. “Once you make a change to one piece of the process that’s been in place for decades, it’s important to see what the initial impact is before determining what you’re going to do for the future to change things.”

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