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In Wake of Hiccups and Tight Deadlines, Feds Beef Up Supports for Fledgling FAFSA

The newly designed Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, intended to streamline the user experience and offer more aid to a broader pool of applicants, has been branded the “Better FAFSA.”

Instead, it has created mounting frustration thus far among users and would-be users due to a series of delays in its availability and related glitches.

To address some of those frustrations, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Feb. 5 announced new and pending support to improve users’ experiences with the new FAFSA both for FAFSA applicants and the college personnel reviewing them.

“Make no mistake: the Better FAFSA is transformational,” said Cardona during the press conference. “We are determined to get this right. We must, and we will. Our hope is that these steps we’re announcing today are going to go a long way toward helping colleges and universities make the most of the Better FAFSA.”

Ed. Dept. promises new support for college financial aid offices and FAFSA applicants

Cardona outlined some immediate actions the department is taking to improve the FAFSA experience. It has launched StudentAid.gov/fafsatips, a new resource that provides tips on how to complete and submit the 2024–25 FAFSA form. Other supports shared Monday are aimed at colleges reviewing the forms.

These new resources will help deploy federal personnel and expertise to help colleges prepare and process financial aid forms. That support is expected to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities, tribal colleges and universities, and colleges that are lower-resourced; establish a concierge service within the office of Federal Student Aid to connect “a broad set” of colleges with financial aid experts for personalized support; and allocate $50 million in federal funding to nonprofit groups such as the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Partnership for Education Advancement to support immediate recruitment of financial aid professionals to support under-resourced colleges.

Education department officials said the goal in this new round of supports for college financial aid offices is to ensure that incoming college students have adequate time to make important decisions about their higher education options. In a press release about the latest round of FAFSA supports, the department asserted that it “welcomes institutions providing students and families as much flexibility as possible and as much time as possible to review aid offers to make enrollment decisions.”

The new FAFSA has been beset by a series of delays

The FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019 was intended to make it easier for college applicants to apply for federal student aid. But the redesign of the FAFSA has been a source of blame for the delayed release of its most recent iteration and subsequent glitches.

The department released the newly designed FAFSA via a “soft launch” on Dec. 31, 2023. That was a change from previous years, when the form was released in October. Even after the launch of the form in December, the website that houses it was available only periodically in order to allow the department to monitor site performance and functionality.

Typically, an estimated 18 million college-bound students annually submit the FAFSA, as it’s the only way to receive federal assistance for college tuition. But as of Feb. 2, 2024, the Federal Student Aid Office confirmed that just 3.1 million forms had been submitted for the 2024-25 school year.

And last week, the department announced yet another setback for the redesigned FAFSA: higher education institutions and scholarship organizations would not start receiving submitted applications until the first half of March. Previously, late January was the targeted date. The FAFSA’s most recent delay apparently will allow time to fix a miscalculation identified in the originally revised financial aid formula, which failed to account for inflation, an error equivalent to roughly $1.8 billion, according to news reports.

This latest complication further pushes back the time frame for colleges to determine financial aid amounts for students applying to college for 2024-25. This will, in turn, slow the process of alerting college applicants about their financial aid packages so that they can make deliberate, informed decisions about the future of their education.

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