Newswise — It’s a sunny late-summer afternoon in UWM’s financial aid office. A line of incoming students spills into the hallway. The phone rings – often. Student workers answer questions up front, professional staff answer emails and process paperwork in back. New student employees are being trained in a basement call center.

Now is the busiest time of year for UWM Financial Aid Director Tim Opgenorth, who leads distribution of the approximately $80 million in federal grants, loans and work study that UWM undergraduate students receive every year.

Plus, the 2016-‘17 school year is the first that UWM is working under executive orders from President Barack Obama that Opgenorth says are the biggest changes he’s seen to the federal financial-aid process in his 25 years.

The executive orders allow prospective college students to apply earlier than ever for financial aid and they provide students with easier access to their family’s tax information to complete applications.

Opgenorth says there’s never been a better time to apply on time – or “as early as you can” – for financial aid. Here is his essential, easy-to-follow advice.

Q: What do prospective college students and their families need to know about starting a financial-aid application? A: Senior year, you should apply for scholarships and admission to the schools that you’re interested in. Prove you’re admissible to a college or university, then you apply for financial aid.

Q. How does the financial-aid application process start? A: With the Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA]. Students have to complete this to be considered for any kind of federal aid – grants, loans or work-study. Likewise, the State of Wisconsin piggybacks on that, using the FAFSA to allocate state funds. Many colleges also use that application to determine private scholarships and other awards.

Q. If I plan to be UWM freshman in the fall of 2017, when should I apply for financial aid? A. First, apply for admission. Then complete your FAFSA, which is available online starting Oct. 1 of 2016. It’s a big change from prior years, when the FAFSA wasn’t available until Jan. 1. Hopefully, with this new deadline, families will know what their student’s financial-aid package is much earlier – maybe in December or January instead of April or May – and they can plan better.

Q: When is that latest a student can complete the FAFSA?A: Submit your completed FAFSA as soon as possible. Our priority is making sure people get the application done completely and correctly. My advice is, if you will be a new UWM student, file by Jan. 1, 2017. If you're a returning UWM student, file by March 1, 2017. Q: What kind of personal financial information is needed to complete the FAFSA? A: A more recent change is that families can use the prior year’s information from the Internal Revenue Service. So for a 2017 application, you can transfer your 2015 family income information directly from the IRS. This change makes the process easier. The FAFSA may still look like a daunting form, but it’s not as bad as it seems.

Q: Which parent’s income should be on a student’s FAFSA application if her parents aren’t married?A: The general rule of thumb with the FAFSA is that the parent who is providing you with 51 percent or more of your financial support is the parent who should be listed on the FAFSA. You also need to keep in mind your parents’ current marital status. If mom or dad is remarried, you need to list your stepmom or stepdad’s information, too.

Q: What happens if a student makes a mistake on the FAFSA? A: Usually when we see an error on the FAFSA, it’s simply an honest mistake. The worst thing that will happen is that we [UWM financial aid staff] will ask you for more information.

Q: What happens to students who file their FAFSA in the late spring or in the summer, right before classes start?A: It takes us longer to process financial-aid awards when applications come in late. And the longer it takes to process, the longer you have to wait before you know how much aid you’ll receive. This makes it harder make tuition payments, budget for book purchases and cover other fees due at the beginning of the semester.

Q: What if Milwaukee’s high school seniors have more questions? A. They can start with their high school guidance counselors. Or, they’re welcome to email our office at [email protected], but give us another three weeks to get all the 2016-17 applications processed! In the meantime, visit us online at uwm.edu/financialaid/.