Students face logistical issues with new FAFSA

Updated, simplified form creates challenges for low-income students, delays college commitment dates
Students face logistical issues with new FAFSA

Following this year’s attempt by the Department of Education to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, completion rates dropped by 31% for seniors compared to the same time last year.

With the updated 2024-25 so-called Better FAFSA, various logistical and technical issues faced students trying to fill out the new application.

FAFSA is the official form used to determine student eligibility for college federal financial aid. Many educational institutions, individual colleges and universities, also use FAFSA to determine a student’s financial aid package decisions.

But this year, because the roll out of the simplified form has so many complications, the Department of Education delayed sending student financial information to colleges until March 10, leading many colleges to delay their commitment date.

In past years, colleges sent financial aid information in January.

College Advisor Sandra Cernobori said students faced a wide variety of challenges during their attempts to fill out the form.

“The problems could be with account creation because some people couldn’t even create the ID,” Cernobori said. “Some students were able to create their ID but were unable to invite their parents. Other parents could access the invitation, but they couldn’t create their FSA ID because either they don’t have a social security number or they’re undocumented or they live in another country. And there’s this whole verification process which is backlogged since you have to upload documents. I’m just scratching the surface with the problems.”

The FAFSA Simplification Act of 2019, was an attempt to streamline the federal financial aid application by, among other things, cutting the number of questions from 108 to 36.

Wil Del Pilar, vice president of The Education Trust –– which supports low-income students in achieving academic excellence –– said issues with this year’s FAFSA were an additional barrier to college for students who are already disadvantaged in some way.

“Most institutions, states and the federal government will not award any type of financial aid unless you’ve completed a FAFSA, so it is the single most critical form and the single most important way that students have access to financial aid to pay for their college education,” Del Pilar said.

Despite the issues with this year’s rollout, Cernobori said simplifying FAFSA initially sounded like a good idea.

“Especially for families who don’t make a lot of money, a lot of the questions were irrelevant,” Cernobori said. “With smart logic and dynamic application, it was supposed to be able to figure out who those people were and change the questions accordingly to make it much easier.”

Although Del Pilar said the FAFSA typically opens in October, the Better FAFSA launch date was pushed because it wasn’t ready, and the law creating the Better FAFSA only required it be ready by Dec. 31, 2023.

“It met the letter of the law, but when students got on, it was crashing. They would have to wait in waiting rooms to complete it,” Del Pilar said. “So the first challenge (students) had was opening it up when it wasn’t ready to be open. They just had to do it because it was a requirement in law.”

From Cernobori’s perspective, part of the problem was that the Department of Education released a faulty form.

“They had a year and a half to two years to get it functioning, and it’s horrible,” Cernobori said. “They were supposed to release it a year prior and weren’t ready. So (they should) change the legislation, ask for an extension. It’s unconscionable to release a tool that affects people who need the most support.”

Senior Sophia Yang, who filled out the Better FAFSA, said her experience with the form was straightforward, but she finds it disheartening to hear the complications it has prompted, especially for low income students.

“(The Department of Education) realized they had miscalculations, even a slight miscalculation on their part can really affect a lot of people and the amount of aid that they get,” Yang said.

While assisting students failing to fill out the form, Cernobori said she’s been continuously dialing the FAFSA support hotline for help.

“Sometimes they could help us, and sometimes they could not,” Cernobori said. “(Students) were incredibly frustrated and stressed because it wasn’t working. They were worried that they were doing something wrong and-or that they’re not gonna meet the college’s deadlines. I feel for them (and) worry that some of them are not going to finish this application and are not going to go to college.”

For students having a difficult time, Del Pilar said he encourages them to reach out for support.

“There are resources and organizations out there like The Education Trust, the National College Attainment Network, NASFAA and student financial aid counselors,” Del Pilar said. “All of these organizations are creating resources and are trying to support students in completing the FAFSA. I would say don’t lose hope because of a single form that may prevent you from going into college.”

In response to the Department of Education sending FAFSA information to colleges two and a half months later than usual, Yang said students aren’t being alloted the necessary time essential for thoroughly evaluating financial decisions.

“Giving less time is a huge issue because people need to weigh a lot of factors that can’t just be decided within the span of a week,” Yang said. “For example, if a better school gives them a lower financial aid package, they really need to consider whether it is worth taking out student loans to go to this better school that’s much more expensive than say, their state school or a school that gave them a full ride scholarship.”

In an email to the Campanile, a Department of Education spokesperson said they are focusing all their attention on ensuring colleges can create financial aid offers as soon as possible, and sending regular updates to those involved.

“We recognize how important it is for schools to have the information they need to make aid offers to students, which is why we are reprocessing all affected records at the request of schools, and allowing them to choose whether to use the original or updated records for packaging aid offers to ensure students can make important education decisions,” the Department spokesperson said.

Del Pilar said he is severely disappointed by how the FAFSA process transpired this year, and the Department of Education cannot continue delaying the process.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen in the admission cycle where students will graduate from high school before knowing where they may be going to college or if they’re going to be able to afford college,” Del Pilar said.

For now, Del Pilar said the Department of Education should be deploying resources for institutions, high schools and community colleges, to help students complete the FAFSA.

“They provided some resources, I think they rolled out $50 million,” Del Pilar said. “But I don’t think it’s enough given the delays, and the number of FAFSAs completed by high school graduating seniors is down 38% compared to the same time last year. We have to stop asking students to keep their lives on hold until the department figures out how to effectively open up a website so that they can receive information.”

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