For more than 34,000 Kansas public and private school students, this month marks the start of their senior years. As they consider what to do after high school, they and their families should be aware of changes to the federal student aid process.

Starting this year, students can fill out a FAFSA as early as Oct. 1. That’s three months ahead of the normal Jan. 1 start, and it’s part of a federal push meant to put financial aid award letters into students’ hands earlier.

A key advantage of the change is that families won’t have to estimate their 2016 earnings and tax figures on the FAFSA, then submit revisions later after filing their 2016 tax returns. Instead, they will be able to use their 2015 information — and can retrieve it from the IRS via the online FAFSA website.

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the federal form on which federal student loans, grant and work-study decisions are made. Families report earnings, investments and related information on the form, which can have bearing not just on access to federal assistance, but also state and institutional resources.

For years, high school seniors applying to start college the fall after their graduation have had to wait until March or April of their senior years to receive financial aid offers.

In Kansas, public universities are busy trying to ensure students know about the changes.

Washburn, for example, is encouraging applicants to fill out the FAFSA early because campus-based funds “are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

Nevertheless, universities offer mixed outlooks on when students will receive financial aid decisions in this first year with an earlier FAFSA start. That’s because other factors are involved in the timeline, such as the annual release of federal charts that relate to Pell Grant eligibility.

Washburn University, for example, says “there are other key pieces needed from the Department of Education which are necessary to award students that will not be available in time to allow for early financial aid awards in this first year.”

“However, our Admissions Office is reviewing ways to communicate with families to provide estimated financial aid information for the 2017-2018 academic year,” the university’s communications director wrote in an email. “We will plan to send out official financial aid awards at the earliest opportunity during the spring semester.”

Likewise, Pittsburg State cautioned there will be some limitations to early processing, at least in the first year.

“We’re hoping that our contacts through the Department of Education are successful in their plans to encourage legislative changes which could allow this to change for a future year,” Tammy Higgins, director of student financial assistance, said in an email from Pitt State’s communications department.

Emporia State, meanwhile, is hopeful it can “overcome not having all the federal and State of Kansas award allocations in time for November and December award letters,” communications director Gwen Larson wrote in an email.

Previously, the financial aid award notification process began in mid-March. The changes to the FAFSA will allow ESU to start the awarding process in late November or early December, says Elaine Henrie, director of financial aid.

The University of Kansas, meanwhile, says changes to the FAFSA this year mean it is possible students who file early could receive financial aid offers a few weeks earlier than usual.