Q. I have a high school senior and a junior, too, and both will go to college. I know the FAFSA is changing, but I don’t understand how. Can you explain?
— Mom

A. The change coming for FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — is a big one.

Your current high school senior won’t be affected for his freshman year, but he will be in 2017, as will your high school junior.

The earliest you can submit the FAFSA for your senior is January 2016. But when your junior starts applying to colleges, you’ll be able to submit the FAFSA in October 2016 — three months earlier.

One of the reasons for this change is to give the colleges more time to for your financial aid consideration, said Steven Sirot, co-founder of College Benefits Research Group (CBRG) in Roseland.

Sirot said colleges have been feeling the pressure to inform the families of their financial aid awards as early as possible.

“They have to balance this pressure against verifying the information which is submitted on the FAFSA form with tax returns, tax transcripts, etc.,” Sirot said. “By moving the FAFSA submission up by three months, it gives the colleges and the families more time.”

Sirot said there’s been an increasing trend in the past several years for students to apply for admission early. Therefore, families have a longer wait — until February, March or even April — before receiving any clarity on what a student’s  financial aid package would look like.

This causes delays for the family that could lead to missed opportunities such as preferred housing, certain academic programs and even just piece of mind, Sirot said.

While receiving a financial aid package early seems like an advantage, there could be some negative ramifications as well.

For example, the income information submitted for 2016 is 2015 tax information — the most recent available. But for 2017 graduates, FAFSAs will be submitted three months before the end of the year, so end-of-year income estimates will be not be reliable, Sirot said.

“They rectify this problem by looking at the ‘prior, prior’ tax year, which would be 2015,” Sirot said. “In other words, because you have a senior and a junior, both of their financial aid awards will be based on 2015 income.”

Whether or not that’s a good thing will depend on if your 2015 income was higher or lower than normal.

Sirot said if it was higher, you should look to appeal to the financial aid offices of all the schools to which your student applies and explain your specific situation.

And don’t forget about the CSS Profile, another financial aid form required by some colleges. You can learn more about that here.

Email your questions to Ask@NJMoneyHelp.

Karin Price Mueller writes the Bamboozled column for The Star-Ledger and she’s the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Click here to sign up for the NJMoneyHelp.com weekly e-newsletter. Like NJMoneyHelp.com on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

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