NATIONAL NEWS

Why families applying for financial aid may initially have trouble with the new FAFSA

Jan 2, 2024, 3:53 PM

People walk on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in June 2023, in Chapel H...

People walk on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in June 2023, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mandatory Credit: Eros Hoagland/Getty Images/File

Washington (CNN) — A long-awaited update to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, was released on December 30. But some families are having trouble accessing the online form, which has so far only been available for short periods of time.

During what the Department of Education is calling a “soft launch,” the agency is monitoring site performance, conducting planned pauses for maintenance and making updates.

The FAFSA application was available for a 30-minute window on December 30, a 30-minute window on December 31 and a two-hour window on January 1, according to the Department of Education. More than 30,000 forms were successfully submitted during those times, and the form was reopened the afternoon of January 2.

When the FAFSA is paused, families may not be able to start or resume work on the form, which will be used to determine financial aid eligibility for the 2024-25 academic year.

The form is expected to be available for short periods of time during the coming days.

The Department of Education has been working on a major overhaul of the FAFSA for about three years, after Congress approved changes to the form to make it shorter and easier to fill out. More students are expected to qualify for financial aid.

Usually, the form is available October 1 each year, but the changes delayed this year’s release date. The updated form was required by law to be available by January 1, 2024.

Still, the Department of Education has said that families do not need to rush to immediately submit the FAFSA this year.

Even if a student submits the FAFSA now, the applicant will not receive the FAFSA Submission Summary (formerly known as the Student Aid Report) until late January. The report tells students how much federal student aid they are eligible for. An applicant will likely have to wait longer to hear from colleges about how much aid the school may provide.

How to submit the FAFSA

The FAFSA is available online at StudentAid.gov.

During the soft launch period, applicants may experience a waiting room feature, which will help control website volumes.

Users who log on during a temporary pause should check back at a later time to complete the form, the Department of Education said.

The student is responsible for filing the FAFSA, though if the student is a dependent, his or her parent must also sign the form. Both the parent and student will need to create their own account with Federal Student Aid, known as the FSA ID, before beginning to fill out the form.

The new FAFSA is easier to fill out

With the new form, some applicants will have to answer as few as 18 questions, which would take fewer than 10 minutes to complete, according to the Department of Education.

The number of questions on the FAFSA vary by applicant, based on his or her financial circumstance. The Department of Education said that for most users, it will take about an hour to finish the form.

There are two reasons the updated FAFSA is easier to fill out.

First, some information is now directly taken from a filer’s tax return. This means that an applicant won’t have to go hunting for the right information on his or her tax return to input into the FAFSA.

Additionally, a handful of questions have been eliminated entirely. For example, drug convictions no longer preclude someone from receiving financial aid. And as of the 2021-22 award year, male students are no longer required to register for the Selective Service in order to be eligible for financial aid, so that question has been removed from the new FASFA as well.

Some students will qualify for more financial aid

There have also been changes to the FAFSA calculation, which is expected to make more students eligible for federal financial aid.

In fact, the Department of Education estimates that 610,000 more students will qualify for a Pell grant on an annual basis. The Pell grant program is a key way the federal government helps students from low-income families go to college by providing eligible students with money they don’t have to pay back.

And an estimated 1.5 million more students will be eligible for the maximum Pell grant amount, which typically changes each year. The Pell grant is worth up to $7,395 during the current school year.

Students from the lowest-income families already get the maximum Pell grant. But those whose family income is in the range of $40,000 to $70,000 and who have no siblings in college are expected to see an increase in their Pell grant amount, according to a Brookings Institution report.

There are some students, specifically those with siblings in college at the same time, that may find that they are eligible for less financial aid with the new form.

Previously, students with siblings in college were often eligible for more financial aid than those who did not have a sibling enrolled at the same time – thanks to something known as the “sibling discount.”

For example, if a family had two children in college, each student’s eligibility for financial aid was roughly double what it would have been if the family did not have any other children in college at the same time.

But under the new FAFSA calculation, that benefit goes away. Not factoring in the other changes to the formula, the amount of financial aid a student is eligible for will no longer increase if he or she has a sibling in college at the same time.


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Why families applying for financial aid may initially have trouble with the new FAFSA