Denise Trowbridge

The new year is here and, if you have kids in college or about to go, it's time to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. You must file this form if you want to be eligible for federal grants, such as the Pell Grant, and federal student loans, which usually have lower interest rates and better terms than private student loans.

The information you provide on your FAFSA form also determines your family's expected family contribution, which is the maximum amount the federal government believes you should be paying out of pocket for tuition bills for the following school year.

But be aware - there is a significant change coming in the filing process this year.

Traditionally, the FAFSA is filed after Jan. 1 in the same year you are seeking aid. For example, you'll be filing the FAFSA after Jan. 1, 2016, if your student is beginning or attending college in the 2016-2017 school year, because the form requires information from your most current (in this case, 2015) tax returns. If this is you, get to work filling out that form now. Just be aware that the process will change come October.

Starting in the fall, you will be able to file the FAFSA for the 2017-2018 school year three months earlier, using information from your prior year's tax return. In plain English, this means students planning to attend college in 2017 will be able to apply for aid as early as October 2016 using information from their 2015 tax return.

The U.S. Department of Education announced this change in September, saying it will speed up the process; students also will know sooner if they are eligible for federal loans and grants. With this change, the financial-aid application process now will coincide with college-application season, which also begins in October. The goal is to give families more time to evaluate and negotiate financial-aid offers from colleges while considering their options for paying the tab.

No matter when you file, here are a few key things to keep in mind:

Filing the FAFSA is always free. (Go to fafsa.gov to fill out the form.) If anyone attempts to charge you a fee, it's a scam.

Some colleges require an additional form before issuing a financial-aid package. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE form, issued by the College Board (a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand access to higher education), is required by many private universities to determine a student's eligibility for a college's private grants and scholarships. It asks for more detailed financial information than the FAFSA and is believed to give colleges a more complete picture of a family's financial life. There is a fee to file this form.

The FAFSA form may not give a complete or accurate picture of a family's ability to pay for college. Debt such as mortgages, car loans and credit-card debts aren't included when calculating the family's expected contribution. On the upside, parents' retirement accounts aren't counted as assets on either form, so, in terms of aid, it can pay to max out your retirement accounts.

The expected family-contribution amount applies to all children in college at that time. This means if you didn't qualify for aid when one child was in college, you might qualify once a sibling starts college.

There are many resources to help you find ways to potentially increase your financial aid. A few good starting points are FinAid.org, an award-winning website providing information on college financing; the U.S. Department of Education's financial aid website, studentaid.ed.gov; and you can always go straight to fafsa.gov.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.