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The New FAFSA Is Finally Here. Sort of

Filling out the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, this year is a little like attempting to purchase tickets online for one of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concerts. FAFSA users are encountering strict criteria to log onto the site, frustratingly long wait periods, and system crashes from overuse.

The stakes are a little higher for the 2024-25 FAFSA, though. It’s an essential piece of the overall college application process for the estimated 18 million college-bound students who submit it annually, as it’s the only way to receive federal assistance for college tuition. The Department of Education released the newly designed FAFSA via a “soft launch” on December 31, 2023, announcing that, initially, the site will be available only periodically, thereby allowing for monitoring of site performance and functionality. Typically, the FAFSA application is released in October.

The long-awaited, revised FAFSA is the result of the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019, whose main objective is to make it easier to apply for federal student aid. So far, that promise has yet to be realized for users.

“It was definitely a bumpy start,” said Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, referencing anecdotal reports of users’ inability to get onto the site or to continue once they did gain access, as well as problems submitting completed applications.

Once the application process is running as intended, the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office promises new and improved benefits to filling out the redesigned FAFSA application, including fewer questions to answer, translation into 11 commonly used languages compared to only Spanish and English in the former iteration, and broader eligibility to qualify for Pell Grants. In the interim, experts break down some of the application’s intricacies and obstacles, and offer advice on getting through them.

Delays to the new online FAFSA

This year’s delayed FAFSA application was always going to result in a compressed timeframe for students to weigh their financial aid offers from colleges, said Desjean. A recent announcement by the Education Department means even longer wait times. Shortly before the FAFSA’s soft launch, the department reported that it will be submitting completed FAFSA applications to colleges no earlier than the end of January 2024. The FAFSA Submission Summary (formerly called the Student Aid Report), which provides the estimated Pell Grant amount for eligible students, will not be issued until late January.

“This is very different than years past,” said Desjean, noting that in previous years, colleges would receive and could confirm receipt of the FAFSA within one to three days.

These initial delays could produce a negative domino-like effect. With colleges receiving financial data from families later than usual; this in turn will delay college financial aid offices from putting together aid packages for individual families.

Additional barriers for certain applicants

College applicants who have at least one parent who is not a U.S. citizen are likely to encounter additional barriers to completing the application, explained Tessie Wilson, chairwoman of College Access Fairfax, a nonprofit that partners with Fairfax County schools to help students navigate the college application process.

Accessing the new online FAFSA requires all parents of applicants to have a FSA ID, a username and password combination that serves as one’s legal signature. Previous iterations of the FAFSA required such an ID from only one parent. Creating the FSA ID requires a Social Security number. College-bound students whose parents can’t verify their identity via a Social Security number must fill out a lengthy paper version of the FAFSA instead of the online version, which the Education Department says should take about an hour and a half.

“We are concerned about that population,” Wilson said. “It’s just another hurdle.”

Desjean echoes Wilson’s sentiment. “I worry about those who are hearing stories that this is a nightmare,” she said, “Especially people on the fence about college.”

Desjean has a message to those students and the school counselors tasked with supporting them in their next steps on that path.

“Go ahead and fill out the form,” she said. “This could be your ticket to college.”

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