By Dr. Mark L. Fisher | drmarkfisher@yahoo.com

While many parents of high school seniors have prodded students to work on and complete college applications, the tables are turned as of Saturday, Oct. 1.

Students should urge their parents to begin filing the Free Application for Student Aid. Parents of previous college students are used to starting the FAFSA on Jan. 1, but no more. This is the first year for the October date, thanks to the federal government.

Parents ask why they should complete the FAFSA when they will not qualify for federal student aid. The FAFSA is not only for federal aid. Colleges use it for all types of financial aid.

In Georgia, the FAFSA is one of two ways to enter HOPE competition rather than complete a simple form, meaning your student may be HOPE eligible but you do not want any other aid from colleges. You can foot the bill yourself.

Beware: Financial aid scams and moneymaking ventures are around. The FAFSA website is www.fafsa.ed.gov. Don’t fall for a web address that is a little different.

Are there advantages to the October date?

Absolutely. The base year used for your taxes is your 2015 tax return. Most families submitted that return long ago. With the Jan. 1 date, you would have used 2016 and usually guessed the numbers because you hadn’t finished your tax return.

Now the numbers are right there. When you apply online, you will be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically populate a lot of the FAFSA application from your 2015 tax return. It makes the process easier, errors are reduced, and your chance of being selected to verify your FAFSA information will be much less.

How else will the new procedure affect the aid process?

The financial aid application process may be better aligned with the admissions process. Some colleges say students will receive their financial award letters earlier; others are not quite sure. The process is also new for colleges.

In past years, students sometimes had to wait and wait for financial award letters, delaying student decisions about which college to attend. If colleges get on board with the new financial aid schedule and make their awards earlier, students will be in a better position to make college decisions.

You must adhere to each college’s FAFSA deadline. Miss the deadline and you may miss the money. Do you have to complete the form amid the holidays the first week in October? No, but don’t wait until the deadline date of a particular college. If a college runs out of financial aid money, and you procrastinate, you might find that the vault is empty even if you are eligible for aid.

About 10 million students are getting ready to line up for financial aid. If you enjoy waiting in line at the airport or a supermarket, change your habit. It could cost your family.

Upon completing the FAFSA, you will receive information that will indicate your “expected family contribution.” You might be shocked by what the FAFSA thinks you can afford, but don’t despair.

Depending on the money available, a given college might give you more than you think, depending on how much it wants your student.

Merit money is available at many colleges. It is based on academic record and/or factors such as community service, artistic endeavors and athletics, not need.

Don’t be fooled by the scary sticker price for some colleges. You never know whether merit money will be awarded or how much financial aid will be given.

A student in Georgia applied to a state public institution and a private college in Georgia. The private institute’s sticker price was far more, but the private college cost only $1,000 more per year with aid. You just never know.