The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the backbone of the federal financial aid system and a source of deep frustration for millions of students, parents, high school counselors, and financial aid administrators. Perhaps the only thing worse than having to do the FAFSA would be it not being ready or fully tested and any bugs fixed in time for the start of financial aid filing season in October.
Every year, the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), which is part of the Department of Education (ED), must update the online FAFSA form. They then have to test it, provide information on changes to high school counselors and colleges, and make sure the whole system runs smoothly for October 1, when applications open. This year the task is even bigger due to the FAFSA Simplification Act, passed at the end of 2021, which changes significant parts of the FAFSA form and formulas that underpin it. Those changes, and the lack of a timeline for when the new form will be ready, have advocates worried that the revisions will not be completed on time.
The FAFSA is the federal form you must complete to be considered for any financial aid from the federal government, your state, or one of the colleges you hope to attend. and is used by states and colleges to determine what support they might be eligible for.
Late last year, The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) wrote to the Department of Education ED and the White House, raising concerns that with all the other priorities ED and FSA are managing, the revisions to FAFSA are lagging.
FSA is currently managing a massive portfolio of changes to the higher education financing system, including managing the Biden debt cancellation plan, significant revisions to income drive repayment plans, the administration’s “Fresh Start,” plan aimed at getting defaulted borrowers back into repayment, and a host of essential changes designed to improve student loan servicing, to name but a few.
Delays in launching the FAFSA could have significant domino effects on state financial aid programs and colleges, which all rely on FAFSA to award their financial aid funds. Many state grant programs have priority deadlines, and a delay in FAFSA launching could create problems for students trying to apply in time to be considered for state financial aid.
The changes required by the FAFSA Simplification Act are positive. The number of questions on the form will be reduced from over 100 to 38. More students will be eligible to receive Pell Grants, although some students will see their eligibility for aid decrease. Additionally, some of the formulas used to calculate aid eligibility are changing.
These myriad changes will likely lead to a significant increase in questions and concerns directed to financial aid offices and college advisors. Prospective college students will be trying to understand how the process works, and current students who see their aid eligibility change will want to understand why.
While possible, it is not likely that FSA will miss the deadline for launching FAFSA on October 1 this year. It is more likely that the system will not have been sufficiently tested, which could result in problems for colleges, students, and the staff trying to support them.
The letter from NCAN and NASFAA lays out several concerns. They include worries that critical deadlines for providing information and testing the system are scheduled for two months later this year than in prior years. There are also fears that aid administrators will have less time to set up their systems and processes for smooth operation and that it will be harder to support students as a result.
To prepare for the changes, financial aid administrators and college advisors need time to learn the new rules so they can educate students and families on how they will be impacted. Without sufficient time to prepare, tens of thousands of financial aid administrators and college counselors will be hard-pressed to provide adequate support to students trying to navigate the financial aid system.
The changes coming to FAFSA are almost all good. Simplifying the process and making more students eligible for Federal Pell Grants is unequivocally good. However, change at this scale can be confusing and frustrating if the people in frontline staff positions do not know what to expect and how to explain the impacts to students.
Hopefully, FSA and ED can provide frontline staff who make the financial aid system work with the information they need to support students and families as the navigate the complexities of the financial aid system.