The Department of Education (ED) has officially said that this year’s Free Application for Federal Student aid (FAFSA) will not open until December, two months later than usual. The delay comes as the result of a huge overhaul of the federal form that students use to apply for financial aid to help pay for college. An exact date in December has not been announced yet.
FAFSA has opened for applications on October 1 the year before students expect to enroll in college since 2016. Previously the form was available on January 1 every year. The FAFSA is the federal form you must complete using income and tax information 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. The move to an earlier FAFSA was possible because of changes that allowed students and families to use older tax data in their applications. Moving the date to December will make it challenging for students with less help to complete the application in a timely manner.
Every year, the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), which is part of (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 usually 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.
One of the benefits of an earlier FAFSA opening date has been providing first-generation and low-income students with more time to complete the application ahead of priority deadlines for state grants and institutional funds from colleges. Texas, for example, has a priority deadline of January 15 for its state grant program and some colleges have deadlines that are even earlier. The earlier opening also provides financial aid offices with more time to help students who had unusual circumstances or needed to submit appeals because of changes in family income or job losses.
The current ecosystem of support for students applying for financial aid, including college advising, and financial aid information events, has been built around the expectation that students can begin applying in October. All those timelines will now need to shift to provide support and help to students applying for aid in a compressed timeframe.
Advocates began to worry about delays to FAFSA last month when officials from ED said they could not commit to October 1 during a conference for financial aid administrators. As a result of those concerns, several groups, including the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators, called for clarity on when FAFSA would be available.
By announcing the changes now, the Office of Federal Student Aid, the part of the department of education responsible for FAFSA, is giving colleges, high schools and college access groups time to adjust their planned support for students during FAFSA filing season.
FSA has said that it will return to an October 1 release date next year, which should be easier to achieve once the major changes to the application are completed this year. One of the likely causes for the delays this year is flat funding for FSA, which has been tasked with a large number of the Biden administration’s higher education initiatives, including student debt cancellation, a massive shake up of income-driven student loan repayment plans, and the Fresh Start program, which provides an opportunity for borrowers in default to bring their loans back into good standing, just to name a few. FSA had asked for a large increase in funding to help manage its increase in work but did not receive a boost.
As part of its announcement, FSA said it will be carrying out an information campaign to help students and their families understand the changes to FAFSA and provide information about the new timelines. FSA also said it will be providing a comprehensive roadmap to help financial aid offices, college access groups, and technology vendors that colleges use to manage financial aid prepare the changes.
Students who intend to apply for financial aid this year should plan ahead and have their, and their parents’ tax information ready to go so they can complete their FAFSA as soon as it opens in December. Missing priority deadlines for grant programs can mean losing out on thousands of dollars of support.