Effective this month, the U.S. Department of Education has made changes to how, and when families can file the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the first step to applying for financial aid when planning to attend college.

Students are now able to submit the FAFSA much earlier. Instead of beginning on January 1st, 2017, filing for the 2017-2018 FAFSA opened earlier this month, on October 1st. To be considered for state aid, the FAFSA should be filed by February 1st.

Students are encouraged to file early.

Families will use two years of prior income and tax information to complete the application. For example, beginning with the 2017-2018 FAFSA, students (and parents, as appropriate) will report their 2015 income and tax information, rather than 2016 information.

Because the FAFSA asks for two years prior income and tax information, applicants’ tax returns for 2015 should already have been processed, and they may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically import tax information into the FAFSA.

Additional information also is available at StudentAid.gov/fafsa.