The entire college admissions process this year may get a fast forward.

High school seniors may be able to figure out which college they can afford much earlier in the process. For the first time, students will be able to file federal financial aid forms for college on Oct. 1 - three months earlier than the previous date of Jan. 1.

The move-up was announced by President Obama last year as a way to give students information about the aid they qualify for earlier in the college admissions process.

Students' families also will be asked to file information about an earlier income tax year, rather than the current year. That means financial aid awards made by colleges and the government likely will remain the same. In the past, if tax information changed, student awards sometimes changed in the middle of the admission process.

"Students would get caught in the crosshairs of a time-constrained process that often didn't put the students' best interests at heart," said Dave Tobias, vice president for enrollment at Ursinus College.

This year, students will use family income information from 2015.
"It affords students the opportunity to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) a little earlier, as well as have all the tax information from that year finished and completed," Tobias said.

More than a quarter of parents and nearly half of college counselors surveyed by Royall and Company, a higher education research firm based in Richmond, expect students to choose a college earlier because of the change in the federal financial aid deadline. One in five students surveyed expected earlier choices, according to a report by the firm.

Tobias said Ursinus has moved up its deadlines for financial aid to coincide with its application deadlines (Nov. 1 for early action. Dec. 1 for early decision. Feb. 1 for regular decision.)

"In the spirit of this move, we want to make this simpler for students and families the same way the government is trying to," he said.

Such a major change likely will create a bit of uncertainly for colleges, he said. There's no guarantee colleges will award financial aid packages earlier. The government hasn't yet set federal Pell grant amounts for the coming year, leaving a bit of a question mark. And, with aid forms coming in so early, it may be unclear if those students truly are interested in a particular college.

"On our side of the desk, it's tough," Tobias said. "It's a wait and see kind of a thing. There's a learning curve for the public. There's a learning curve for the institutions."

Ursinus, a small liberal arts college in Collegeville, drew a freshman class of 383 students this fall, 46 fewer than last fall and below its target.

The college last month announced a new "Gateway Scholarship," which officials hope will attract more students. The scholarship will cut nearly in half the cost of college for high-achieving students. It will offer $30,000 per year for four years and be open to first-year full-time students for fall 2017. To qualify, students must get at least a 1260 combined reading and math score on their SAT or a composite score of 28 on their ACT, and meet college-prep-level course requirements at Ursinus.

Tobias said the college's decision to adjust financial aid deadlines to coincide with admission deadlines also is designed to make things easier for students.
But he said he's concerned that not all students and families know they can file their aid forms earlier. He contacted the Inquirer to get the word out.

The Royall and Company survey found that less than a quarter of students and about a third of parents were aware of the FAFSA deadline change.