College application season is in high gear and parents and students preparing to go to college for the first time are gearing up for financial aid applications. Those not graduating this spring need to prepare for next year's applications. Going to college is an expensive venture. From tuition and textbooks to stocking up a dorm room with all the essentials your child will need, most college students could use all the financial assistance that the government could possibly offer.

Whether you are sending your child to college for the first time, or you are a seasoned veteran, you are bound to face some changes when it comes to financial aid in the year ahead. The first step in getting this aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which becomes available in early January each year.

Here is a look at the current requirements for FAFSA and other federal student aid programs in 2015-2016 and how they will affect what you can get.

Federal Student Aid for 2015-2016

You can apply for aid between Jan. 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016; next year's deadlines should be similar. Click here to check. That's why it makes sense to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible each year after it becomes available in early January.

Pell Grants Increased Amount
Pell grants are a federally funded grant that are rewarded to students who are at-need, and meet financial requirements. Pell grants are intended to help lower the out-of-pocket costs of college tuition for financially struggling families in the United States. The maximum Pell Grant amount is $5,775, which is a $45 increase over last year's reward amount. Please note that you may not receive the total reward amount; this is simply the maximum allowed for the 2015-2016 calendar year.

Higher Allowance for Student Earnings
The student earnings allowance – the amount a student can earn before his/her earnings are considered as part of available income for their family contribution – rose to $6,310 per year, from $6260.

Qualification For Automatic Zero EFC
The qualifications for Automatic Zero EFC, or Expected Family Contribution is unchanged from recent years. A student can receive an automatic Zero Expected Family Contribution when his or her family's income is $24,000 or less annually.

IRS Data Retrieval
The FAFSA filing process has changed, and it is recommended that all students use the IRS Data Retrieval tool to obtain their or their parents' federal tax return. Using this tool will eradicate common errors on FAFSA forms, and keep your application for student financial aid running smoothly. Tax information is available through the tool approximately 2-3 weeks after tax return submission, and by now all data should be in and finalized. Also keep in mind that Federal 1040 tax returns are no longer an acceptable form of verification for the FAFSA.

Fees for Federal Direct Loans Slightly Lower
The loan fee for direct educational loans from both subsidized and unsubsidized organizations dropped from 1.073% to 1.068%. If you are a borrower of a Direct PLUS loan, you should be aware that the loan fee also fell slightly, from 4.292% to 4.272%.

The Bottom Line

Similar to other years, 2015-2016 has seen some changes in how to file and receive financial aid. Keep in mind that loan rates, grant rewards and financial requirements regularly change, so it is important that you know the exact requirements prior to filing your FAFSA forms. Also remember that there are updates to the FAFSA website as well, and there are plenty of helpful resources on the FAFSA website such as the FAFSA/IRS Outreach, FAFSA Webinar and more. Prior to filing for financial aid, be sure that you fully understand all the changes and how they can affect your filing status. For more information, see An Introduction to Student Loans and the FAFSA and 5 Ways to Get Maximum Student Financial Aid.

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