HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – If you have a child in college or one going to college next year, you will probably have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

This year, there are changes with the form. Instead of filling it out after the first of the year, parents can get online and fill out the FAFSA now.

“The second part that’s new to the FAFSA application is that students and families will be able to use their old 2015 tax return information so they don’t have to wait until they’ve completed their 2016 tax return,” Tiffanie DeVan of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency said.

Filling out the FAFSA sooner gives parents and students more time to figure out how to pay for college. The FAFSA determines if students are eligible for federal financial aid, money that does not have to be paid back.

The FAFSA is a must to get a low-interest federal student loan that comes with repayment benefits and a fixed rate versus private loans that are variable and can have interest rates up to 17 percent.

“A student is eligible to get up to $5,500 their freshmen year. They don’t need a co-signor. They don’t need to have income or credit. So, that’s a good factor for a federal student loan,” DeVan said.

The FAFSA is also necessary if a family is trying to get grants from PHEAA, up to a $4,400 gift from the state.

“Even if you make a lot of money, some parents want may say they want to help out, but this is the responsibility of the student and they still want them to apply for that student loan and pay the student loan back, and the only way to get that federal student loan is by completing the FAFSA application,” DeVan added.

The FAFSA4caster is a good online tool as well. In a matter of minutes, you can get find out if your child qualifies for financial aid.

The FAFSA application must be completed every year to get financial aid, which is different from merit aid or academic scholarships which colleges and universities award on their own.

PHEAA also hosts financial aid planning nights. For more information on that and the FAFSA, go to www.pheaa.org and www.fafsa.ed.gov.

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