Thursday is the first day the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is available for the 2020-2021 academic year, and while COVID-19 has not altered the FAFSA process drastically, there are some adjustments of note.

According to John Tillman, president of Ecliptic Financial Advisors in Sea Girt, the biggest change this year is that many colleges are making test results optional in their need evaluations, since SAT scheduling was thrown off by the pandemic.

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Other than that, any parental job changes brought on by COVID-19 closures will likely not impact a household's income profile, because that number is being taken from 2019.

In the future, Tillman said, a family can request a "special circumstance" form.

"The school will give you the opportunity to address current income situation," he said. "However, it's on a case-by-case basis. It's up to the school."

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What has changed over the course of several years is the application's asset protection allowance, or the non-retirement assets that do not count against a family.

That threshold, according to Tillman, has shrunk.

"Five, six years ago, it used to be as high as $30,000," he said. "Now it's down to probably an average of about $6,000, $7,000, so your non-retirement assets will impact you much heavier now."

Regardless of how the FAFSA is evolving with the times, Tillman recommends that you get your paperwork in early — ideally within the next three to four weeks — even though there is no real deadline to file.

"Any time between Oct. 1 (and the) first week or two in November, you're fine, but you don't want to go too far past that, because aid is awarded on a first come, first served basis," he said.

Of course, it's parents of freshman students, or first-time filers, who must pay the most attention. The timeline to complete a renewal FAFSA, for subsequent years of enrollment, starts in a few months.

One other thing: Tillman feels that the students should take the time and care to learn about the FAFSA process along with their parents, and not just to understand what they go through.

"The big one is if they're going to take loans out in their own name, which most of them do, how much those loans would be and what the requirements would be to pay those back," Tillman said.

The FAFSA form is available at studentaid.gov.

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