For the first time, college-bound students no longer have to wait until January to apply for financial aid through the universal form known as FAFSA.

This year, they can start Oct. 1.

Thanks to a presidential edict, the opening date for submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2017-2018 school year has been moved up by three months.

While many families understandably dread the whole process, officials said they are hoping the early start date will make applying for financial aid a little less stressful.

"They'll be hearing earlier from colleges about their financial aid packages," said Ginny Dodd, manager of financial aid programs at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

As a result, she said, that should give students "a little more time to comparison shop."

Traditionally, fall is the start of college application season, and acceptance letters begin trickling out in the coming months.

But for many students, the ultimate decision will depend on how much they get in scholarships, grants and loans. For that, they must fill out the FAFSA form.

While many students receive their financial aid packages with their acceptance letters, others may have to wait months longer.

Dodd says one reason for the holdup, until now, is that students were required to include their family's tax returns for the year before they enroll.

"There were always time lag issues waiting for families to get their taxes done," she said.

But that, too, is changing.

Now, students heading for college in 2017 can submit their tax forms for 2015, instead of 2016.

"That should mean that every family had their taxes filed a long time ago," Dodd said.

They also have the option to import their tax returns directly onto the financial aid application, through a link with the Internal Revenue Service.

The net result, said Dodd, is that students should get the information faster. "I think a lot of schools will be giving out financial award letters earlier in the year, and students really want that," she said.

The University of Minnesota said that it plans to send out estimated financial aid awards to freshmen about a month earlier than in past years.

A spokesman said the letters would go out to newly admitted students by the first week in February.

Officially, students have almost two years to file the FAFSA for the coming school year.

The applications will be accepted until June 30, 2018, according to the federal Department of Education.

And while they may not be much fun, they should only take about 20 to 25 minutes to fill out, Dodd said.

"They've really whittled it down over the years," she said.

Information about the new FAFSA rules can be found at