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Credit: Megan Jones

The University announced a change to the nationwide Free Application for Federal Student Aid application — and Penn students applying for financial aid will be affected.

In an email sent on Oct. 4, the Office of Student Registration and Financial Services notified Penn undergraduates that FAFSA would be available three months earlier than in previous years.

Students can now start their application for the 2017-18 school year, though the deadline for the application will remain the same, on April 15. Applicants will only be able to use tax returns from 2015 for their FAFSA, SRFS Director of Communications Karen Hamilton said in an email statement.

According to the email, the purpose of the earlier application start date is to allow students the option of filling out and finishing FAFSA earlier, without having to wait for 2016 tax returns.

However, SRFS stressed that “completing the process later in the year will in no way negatively impact your eligibility at Penn.”

For some students, the changes to FAFSA could be tricky. The government awards financial aid based on demonstrated need, which is calculated from factors like how much a student’s parents earn in the last year, shown through annual tax returns. Students whose parents’ income varies greatly year to year, like College freshman Daniel Gonzalez, may have trouble securing adequate financial aid if they aren’t allowed to use their most recent 2016 tax returns.

“I was talking to a financial aid advisor, and she told me that you can’t use 2016 data,” Gonzalez said. “My dad hasn’t held the same job for longer than a year, and my mom, not longer than two years. So not being able to show that ‘Oh hey, my mom got a new job’ is kind of worrisome.”

Gonzalez, a first-generation college student, added that many first-generation students like him tend to face similar family income circumstances.

“The issue for our community is that for a lot of us, our financial situation is changing constantly, year to year, and a difference of a few hundred dollars makes the biggest impact on our financial aid statement,” said College sophomore Lyndsi Burcham, secretary of Penn First, a student organization catered towards first-generation students. “Not being able to substantially represent our true financial situation, that’s a disadvantage to us, because we may be in more need than we’re able to reflect on FAFSA.”

When the change was announced, Burcham said, many students in Penn First were “really frustrated” and had “a lot of misconceptions [about] what was going to happen.”

Burcham said the group has reached out to Hamilton at SRFS to get answers to some of the questions members raised.

“This was a huge change, and this wasn’t really something [Penn was] prepared for, so now they’re kind of facing a backlash from it,” Burcham said. “They know that students have been upset by it, and they are really sorry about that. Since meeting with Karen I feel much more assured that they are going to do things that will benefit not only the Penn First community, but all students at Penn.”

To alleviate the information gap between the year-by-year tax returns in FAFSA, Penn offers its own financial aid supplement that allows students to state if their household income situation has changed significantly outside what their official returns indicate. Hamilton said the SRFS will also review 2016 tax returns if students request it for Penn’s financial aid packages.

However, federal aid and school-given financial aid are separate spheres, and some students remain worried about the amount of federal aid they will receive in the upcoming academic year.

“When it comes down to it, FAFSA decides federal aid,” Burcham said. “And if that’s where most of our aid is coming from, we can’t afford to lose it.”

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