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College Financial Aid

College Financial Aid

January 09, 2024

If you have a child who is a high school senior and you have been experiencing difficulty completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid since the last weekend of 2023, you aren’t alone.

While the 2024–2025 FAFSA was supposed to be available no later than December 31, many filers have not been able to submit it. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledged the difficulties by characterizing the FAFSA rollout as a “soft launch.”

Here is how the Department of Education’s defines its soft launch:

“During the soft launch, the FAFSA form will be available for short periods of time while we monitor site performance and form functionality. We will initiate pauses for site maintenance and to make technical updates as needed to provide you with a better experience.”

Troubled FAFSA launch

This infuriating delay is on top of the previously announced delay of the FAFSA from its normal annual release date of October 1.

Parents probably won’t find comfort in knowing that millions of other families face the same FAFSA glitches. Each year roughly 17 million students and 5,500 schools depend on the FAFSA.

The major changes to the FAFSA and its underlying financial aid formulas were more than the federal government could technically handle.

I find this troubled FAFSA launch as well as other related problems, that I will outline shortly, especially infuriating because the Department of Education has known about these major FAFSA changes since December 2020. That’s when Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act to streamline the FASFA to make it easier to complete and expand eligibility for federal aid.

The full implementation of the FAFSA changes, which had been scheduled for the 2023–2024 school year, had already been postponed a year.

There are hopeful signs that the FAFSA’s availability is expanding. On Wednesday, the Federal Student Aid Twitter account said the FAFSA would be available from 8 am to 8 pm on Thursday.

Consequences of FAFSA delay

The delay has already hurt students who have applied early decision, which typically results in an admission decision before the Christmas holidays. Schools won’t be able to produce need-based financial aid packages for these students since they don’t know what their financial aid situation is.

Students who are accepted ED are supposed to attend regardless of the aid package offered or not offered, but students have never been obligated to accept an offer that comes with no aid or an inadequate package. That is even more true today since students had to commit to a college for the 2024–2025 school year without knowing how much the school would cost them.

Because of the delays, families will have less time to evaluate aid packages when they do arrive. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators complained this week that schools cannot provide realistic timelines about when students and families will receive financial aid offers.

Colleges have had to move back their financial aid deadlines. And some states have had to change their deadline for their own state aid programs. For instance, California’s yearly deadline for its Cal Grants is March 2, but it has been changed to April 2.

The federal government has tried to reduce panic among families by saying that the FAFSA information for individual households won’t even be sent to the colleges until late January or early February. That’s hardly a comforting reality and I find it actually alarming. Until this year, the government has typically processed a household’s FAFSA and sent it to the applicable institutions within three days.

5 things parents can do

Eventually, the Department of Education will have to resolve its technical difficulties, but in the meantime, the following are steps to take:

No. 1: Parents should try every day, and I’d recommend more than once, to complete the FAFSA. While the government said it won’t release results until the end of January or later. I would NOT assume that’s correct. When encountering problems, parents should try using different browsers and consider getting rid of anti-ad browser plug-ins. Also try at non-peak hours to fill out the FAFSA.

Submitting the FAFSA before the crush of applications could end up getting to the schools quicker. Completing the FAFSA—as well as the CSS Profile—as soon as possible could increase a student’s chances of receiving financial aid.

No. 2: If they don’t already possess them, a student and the parent completing the FAFSA, should each obtain a federal FSA ID with a user name and password. This ID, which is considered your legal signature, must be used to sign the FAFSA before submitting it.

Here is the link to obtain an FSA ID.

No. 3: The government has rolled out a virtual assistant named Aidan that you will see when visiting the FAFSA home page. I can’t vouch that using this resource will be helpful, but who knows it might.

No. 4: Because of the massive changes in the FAFSA, parents and students need to be sure to be even more careful reviewing their Student Aid Report (SAR).

The SAR contains all the answers that a family provided on the FAFSA as well as the household’s resulting Student Aid Index (formerly Expected Family Contribution). The SAI is what is used to determine aid eligibility and consequently is an extremely important figure and needs to be right!

Traditionally, families have received their SAR via an email link sent to them three to five days after the FAFSA submission. Of course, the prompt timing may not happen this year!

If your families find mistakes on the SAR, they should correct them. I’d also doublecheck on the SAI by running the federal Student Aid Estimator.

Here is a federal link that discusses what can be changed and can’t be changed on the FAFSA if mistakes are spotted. Of course, the federal information about what can and can’t be changed doesn’t cover possible mistakes that the government rather than the family makes!

Maybe the processing will go smoothly once the government is in possession of a family’s FAFSA, but just in case there are errors not committed by the family, I’d recommend that a household do more than contact the Department of Education. I would reach out to all the colleges on the child’s FAFSA list and alert them too. (I realize I might just be being paranoid, but better to anticipate further snafus.)

No. 5: Families, who may qualify for need-based financial aid from their own states, should make sure the FAFSA is submitted before their own deadline for state aid. Here is another reason to file as soon as possible: Some states dole out the aid on a first-come, first-served basis. States in this category include Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina and Vermont.

Here is the federal list of the financial aid deadlines for the 50 states.

Please contact the office if you have any questions about the financial aid application process.