Every year, about 18 million families across the nation complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine their child’s eligibility for student financial aid, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA. Typically, ambitious families have already filled out the form by now, as it usually becomes available in early October. But this year’s different.
The FAFSA is being overhauled as a result of the FAFSA Simplification Act, part of a federal appropriations measure passed in 2020. Despite the act’s name, the overhauling process appears not to have been very simple: The new form for the 2024-2025 school year is still not available to the public. The target for release is December 2023, but Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, has not given a precise date.
In the meantime, Education Week spoke to Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at NASFAA, to learn more about the FAFSA, its evolution, what the new changes will mean for applicants, and how college counselors can advise families accordingly.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Beyond the current changes the FAFSA is undergoing, has it evolved much over the years?
Desjean: The FAFSA originated in the mid-1990s. The biggest change to it, before this current overhaul, was its move to an online version. That happened at least 10 years ago, around 2010. It’s still available in paper form, but moving it online made really big improvements. Mainly, it added the possibility of allowing counselors to guide students and families through the process of filling it out in real time.
Other recent changes or improvements?
One other recent improvement was the [IRS] Data Retrieval Tool, which allowed families who fill out the form online to simply check a box, making it possible to automatically retrieve [family] income information from the IRS and transfer it directly to the FAFSA.
The new FAFSA will no longer use this tool, but will require applicants to authorize a ‘direct data exchange’. Could you explain?
Families filling out the FAFSA will give consent for the U.S. Department of Education to send their personally identifying information—such as name, Social Security number, date of birth, etc.—to the IRS, which will match it up to their records, and for the IRS to provide this data to retrieve financial information such as that family’s adjusted gross income.
What’s the benefit of this direct data exchange?
It saves time. Families will no longer have to actively pull information about their income and add it to the form; it’s automatic. No longer will families have to answer questions like: What is your adjusted gross income?
What if a family is uncomfortable sharing their identifying information online?
We did raise that concern. Some people might not feel good about their personal data being shared this way. But with the new form, there’s no way to say, “I don’t want to give this permission.” Families have to consent. You can’t receive federal student aid if you do not give consent. The form will be processed as a reject.
Will the new FAFSA be available in paper form?
Yes, paper will still be an option. But even people filling it out this way will still need to consent to the Data Retrieval Form.
The newly designed FAFSA will have fewer questions to fill out than the former version, correct?
Yes. With the new form, families may fill out as few as 60 questions.
The FAFSA is usually released in October. This year, it is slated to be available in December. Why the delay?
It has to do with the Department of Education’s capacity to completely overhaul the form. The FAFSA Simplification Act passed at the end of 2020; it was supposed to be effective for last October, but Congress offered a one-year extension. Now, it’s coming out sometime in December.
What impact could the FAFSA delay have on financial assistance for early applicants?
For students submitting early-action and early-decision college applications, [which generally have earlier submission deadlines than regular college applications,] schools are going back to processes they used formerly; they’re using third-party applications or an institutional application.
For these types of applications, [early action and early decision, of which the latter is binding], colleges are usually making estimated financial assistance offers. The FAFSA would just confirm information that families have already submitted. If the information on a FAFSA isn’t markedly different from what a family has already reported, it shouldn’t have any impact.
Could this later date impact financial assistance decisions for all college applicants?
If a college didn’t have a FAFSA from a family when they made a [financial aid] offer, they would be making an estimation. I don’t think the later FAFSA will change financial aid offers. I think schools will either make offers that are estimations, or delay making financial aid offers.
What should college counselors and families know about the delayed availability of the FAFSA?
For students applying “regular decision” [generally a later deadline application than early action or decision], the delay could still be disruptive. Texas, for example, has a January 15 deadline for applicants to their [public] universities. Some states have pushed their deadlines back a little bit in anticipation of the delay. We advise counselors to look at state and [individual] institutional deadlines well in advance.
Are there changes to which students are eligible to complete the FAFSA and, in turn, receive federal aid?
There are. For instance, students with a prior drug conviction can now qualify for federal aid. If you are a male over the age of 18, failing to register with the draft is no longer a barrier.
Will the FAFSA impact Pell Grants, aimed at low- and middle-income students?
Yes. The new FAFSA uses a different way to calculate student financial need, from the expected family contribution to the Student Aid Index, which is based on federal poverty guidelines. This makes knowing what aid to expect more predictable. Now, if you are lower- or middle-income, you’re probably getting a Pell grant if you meet the other qualifications.
There’s now a Federal Student Aid Estimator simulator online. It’s easy enough for a family with a middle schooler to use the estimator, see if they qualify for a Pell Grant, and recognize that college is a possibility for them early on, allowing them to make better choices about high school classes, etc.
What’s your response to families who don’t fill out the FAFSA because they think they won’t qualify for aid?
We often hear: “Our friends filled it out and they didn’t get anything. We won’t either.” That’s not necessarily true. You don’t know the circumstances of the person for whom it didn’t work out. It [the FAFSA] can open up opportunities.
At the very least, applicants can get an unsubsidized direct loan. There’s no income criteria for students [to receive this kind of loan]. These loans aren’t necessarily below cost. But it’s a loan borrowed just in the student’s name, so even if someone’s parents make a million dollars a year, their child could still qualify.