Millions of students, parents and financial aid workers want to know: WTF — where’s the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka the FAFSA, is getting a major facelift, but the new form’s release has been pushed back to an unknown date. Typically released each year in October, the FAFSA is a vital form that roughly 20 million students fill out annually to see if they qualify for aid for higher education, such as grants, scholarships and student loans.
“Not knowing the date is certainly problematic because it keeps everybody from being able to plan,” says Jon Fansmith, a senior vice president at the nonprofit American Council on Education (ACE).
For students, a delayed FAFSA potentially affects “not just where you can afford to go to college, but whether you can afford to go to college,” Fansmith adds.
Last month, a dozen major higher education associations — including ACE — wrote a letter to the Education Department pressing for more details.
“We are not requesting that the form be released on an accelerated timeline,” the Oct. 13 letter states, “[but] the continued lack of a public release date compromises our members’ ability to do all they can to support a smooth rollout.”
Signatories told Money that the Department of Education has not responded to, or even acknowledged, the letter.
“A delayed launch of the application this year is undoubtedly disappointing,” says Allie Arcese, a spokesperson for the nonprofit National Association of Financial Aid Administrators (NAFSAA), which also signed the letter to the Department of Education.
“But what would be even more damaging is a rushed and unstable release, or a security breach,” she adds. “We understand that these monumental changes will ultimately make the process better for students, and we need to get them right.”
When does the FAFSA open for 2024?
Back in March, the Education Department announced that the new FAFSA's release date would be some time in December. Legally, the department must release the FAFSA by January 1, 2024. Still, many experts are worried by the lack of specificity.
“We don't know when the FAFSA will come out,” Justin Draeger, president and CEO of NAFSAA, said in a podcast episode released Thursday.
“We don't have those answers,” he added, “which is why we keep pressing the department to be as specific as possible — as soon as possible.”
In the episode, Draeger said he’s been hearing murmurs that the department might not be able to meet the Jan. 1 legal deadline. A potential federal government shutdown on Nov. 17 — which could effectively force the Education Department to temporarily close — is fueling the chatter.
While he doesn’t think this will be the case, Draeger said a significant delay could be “catastrophic,” though the ramifications of the department modestly missing the Jan. 1 deadline aren’t clear.
Fansmith, with ACE, says the Department of Education already missed the legal deadline once. Technically, it was supposed to release the new FAFSA by Jan. 1 this year, but it wasn’t able to and requested Congress to extend the deadline.
He says he believes the department will not miss the new Jan. 1, 2024 deadline, but if it did, it would be “politically embarrassing.” To the department's credit, he notes, the agency is doing the best it can given this "herculean task" while also presiding over a return to student loan payments and implementing a brand new income-driven repayment plan.
Why is the FAFSA changing?
The application, often lamented as difficult and time-consuming, is being significantly simplified by the Department of Education for the 2024-2025 academic year thanks to the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was tucked into a sprawling pandemic stimulus package signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in 2020.
After the streamlining process, the FAFSA is expected to go from over 100 questions to less than 40 — changes lauded by advocates. However, the delay and vagueness of the timeline are making many of them nervous. Students and universities alike both need the form to financially plan for the 2024-2025 academic year, and “billions of dollars of federal aid” are on the line, Fansmith says.
In addition to changes on the form itself, the Education Department is altering the methodology it uses to determine student aid which will be more generous in many cases. The FAFSA Simplification Act also expands access to need-based federal Pell grants.
When is the FAFSA due?
Ultimately, the FAFSA is due by the end of June for the upcoming academic cycle, meaning this FAFSA would need to be submitted by students by June 30, 2025. However, some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, and experts strongly urge students who rely on the funds to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.
States and colleges also use the FAFSA’s information to award their own aid, and they have a slew of separate deadlines from the federal one. In some cases, these deadlines for incoming students could be within a month of two of the FAFSA’s release date.
State and college deadlines could be affected by the FAFSA delay, and applicants should follow updates directly from those institutions.
How to apply for FAFSA
Applying for the FAFSA should be simpler than previous years — once the new form is actually released, of course.
Broadly speaking, the application asks a series of demographic, personal and financial questions about the student and likely their parents as well. A Federal Student Aid ID is required (for the parent too, if applicable). Once the base questionnaire is complete, students can add up to 20 potential colleges to send the FAFSA to.
The paperwork typically needed to complete the FAFSA includes: driver’s license(s), tax returns, income records and bank statements for recent assets. Many applicants can transfer tax information directly from the IRS.
To help applicants prepare for the new FAFSA, the Education Department has released a prototype application for both students and parents. The official application may look slightly different, but the prototype should give applicants a solid sense of the upcoming changes.
“The longer getting the form up takes, the more delayed every aspect of the process takes,” Fansmith says. “The possibility for multiple problems, unanticipated problems is pretty high.”
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