This month ushered in two changes to the financial aid application process that will affect students at all colleges and universities.

Every U.S. college student applying for financial aid always has had to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), usually pronounced FAF-SA. It’s a rite of passage as common as registering to vote or applying for driver’s license.

Now, students can submit the FAFSA as early as Oct. 1. In years past, the application process opened on Jan. 1.

The FAFSA is the student’s passport to financial aid in the form of the Pell Grant, loans, scholarships (from the state and college), and college work-study jobs.

“This year’s earlier application process should make applying for financial aid much smoother for students and their families,” said Jerry Donna, financial aid director at SFSC. “Rather than waiting for the start of the new year, students can apply earlier and find out how much aid they’re eligible for as they decide what college they will attend.”

While Oct. 1 isn’t the deadline, financial aid officials advise getting the form in early because some aid awards are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Another major change deals with how students and their families report income on the FAFSA. In previous years, filers would estimate their income for the coming year. This year, with the earlier deadline, students and families will use the income they reported on their 2015 income tax returns. The new FAFSA procedure is referred to as “prior-prior year” and should make it easier to answer the questions.

The U.S. Department of Education initiated the changes to make the financial aid process simpler. Still, completing the FAFSA can be a confusing task.

“We know completing the FAFSA can be difficult for some folks,” Donna said. “That’s why students and families who have SFSC in their plans can get help completing the form by coming to SFSC’s Financial Aid office.”

By filing the FAFSA, students become eligible for an array of scholarships available to them from the SFSC Foundation.

To file the FAFSA online on your own, point your browser to fafsa.gov. If you’re a first time filer you’ll have to create an ID once you arrive at the website. To file the FAFSA, students and their families will need to have at the ready Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, federal tax returns, W-2 forms, and current bank and investment statements.

For more information about SFSC’s financial aid program, call 863-784-7134, or follow the financial aid link on SFSC’s website at www.southflorida.edu.