The new starting date is Saturday when families can fill out the federal form that determines how much they can expect to pay for their children’s college education.

This form is for the 2017-18 school year. Previously, the start date for filing such forms was not until January.

Commonly called FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form has been described as the gateway to getting financial aid for college.

Using this information, the federal government tells families how much they can expect to pay for college, though that amount can change, depending on how much financial assistance a college decides.

FAFSA is most often used by high school seniors who plan on applying to college. The confidential form, which can be found online, requires families to report income from their 2015 tax returns, along with other financial information.

The form is sent to the designated colleges where the student is applying — and that list can be updated.

“It determines the expected family contribution,” said John Serafine, lead counselor at Fairport High School.

The form is used by colleges to help decide how much financial aid they might offer. If a student gets federal financial aid, the parents must update FAFSA every year that aid is received.

In the past, Serafine noted, families would fill out the form in January and might not hear back until March. And that would give them much less time to know what they might expect to pay and pick the best financial aid package from the colleges that have accepted their child.

Since some grants and scholarships are given on a first-come, first-served basis, it is to a family’s advantage to apply to college early. Each college has its own deadlines for filing for financial aid.

Whether the FAFSA form for the next school year is filled out this year or after Jan. 1, tax information from 2015 needs to be provided. If a family’s financial situation has significantly changed since 2015, parents can notify the colleges where their child has applied, and adjustments can be made.

Completing the form can be a complicated task.

“Generally, college financial departments can answer questions about FAFSA. And high school counselors play a big role in providing information to students about filing FAFSA,” said Patricia Braus, executive director of the nonprofit Rochester Education Foundation.

For more information: https://fafsa.ed.gov