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By Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — The Department of Education announced an initiative Monday designed to make the cumbersome college financial aid application process start earlier and go easier.

The new plan, which takes effect in fall 2016, allows families to begin the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, in October — three months earlier — to better align with the college application process. In addition, families can download tax information filed for the previous year to complete the application sooner.

Education officials said they expect hundreds of colleges and universities to adjust their own financial aid calendars to align with the new tax information process.

The current FAFSA application process begins in January and can’t be completed until tax forms due April 15 can be retrieved from the Internal Revenue Service.

“We think this small step to make students’ lives easier could have a huge impact over time,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We estimate that over the next several years, literally hundreds of thousands of additional students will actually gain access to critical student aid each year, because more students and their families will find it easier to apply for that aid.”

Moving the process up three months will better allow high school students to understand the “true cost” of attending college during the fall of their senior year, when the college application process is getting underway, Duncan said on a call with reporters Monday morning.

President Barack Obama is expected to discuss the change during an event Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Federal Student Aid provides $150 billion in grants, loans and other funds each year to more than 13 million college students. The FAFSA application is meant to open the door to that student aid, but the process had traditionally been so time-consuming and complex, it left money on the table for many of the students who needed it most, according to Duncan, who cited his previous experience as CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

“When I was back in Chicago … the FAFSA was so complicated that you almost had to have a degree in accounting to complete it,” Duncan said. “The form itself was literally a barrier to entry — it made it harder to go to college, not easier.”

The FAFSA process has been streamlined during Duncan’s tenure as education secretary, with the ability to skip irrelevant questions and download income information directly from the IRS, cutting down the average time it takes to fill out the online form to 20 minutes — a third of what it was seven years ago, according to officials.

Duncan said the new innovations will encourage more families to apply for financial aid, helping “hundreds of thousands” of additional students attend college, including many first-generation college-goers and minority students.

Retrieving data from the previous year’s return directly from the IRS will allow more students to complete the FAFSA form without the added step of estimating their income and correcting it later. That, in turn, may reduce the burden on colleges, which spend a collective 3 million hours verifying FAFSA information, including income and tax return data.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit organization focused on student financial aid, said using the so-called ‘prior-prior’ year tax data is a long overdue timing fix in the loan application process.

“Because most types of aid require a FAFSA, this change will make it easier for students to meet the many college and state grant deadlines that fall well before taxes are due in April,” Asher said in a statement. “And for the up to two million low-income students who miss out on federal Pell Grants because they don’t complete a FAFSA, this simpler, better timed process could help them get the aid they need to succeed.”

Photo: No longer have to worry about your kids doing this to the FAFSA. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

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