On Dec. 30, 2023, the Department of Education released its new 2024-25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online form as a “soft launch,” which would allow time for officials to monitor site performance, respond to students’ concerns as they fill out the form, and pause the site to make necessary improvements. Traditionally, the FAFSA would be available in October, and the late-December release means students will get their financial aid packages from colleges later than usual.
Students and families reported glitches and continued delays in the first days of the form’s availability, voicing concerns about the potential negative impact, Inside Higher Ed reports. The Department of Education said that, as of Jan. 8, over a million students had successfully submitted the FAFSA, according to The Washington Post. Seventeen million students fill out the FAFSA each year.
Facing a compressed aid cycle
Low-income and first-generation students might be disproportionately affected by a narrower window to decide what college to attend based on their financial aid package, and having less time to make these decisions might discourage them from attending college altogether, experts tell Inside Higher Ed. The National College Attainment Network says that, in this application cycle, college access organizations will have one-third less time to help prospective college students who need support navigating the college-going process.
“I’m really worried about those students who are either trying for the first time or renewing their aid,” says Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.
Some experts predict that the FAFSA glitches may continue throughout January, and college applicants may not receive their full financial aid packages until March at the earliest, which is after early decision deadlines at some colleges, The Wall Street Journal reports. Typically, early applicants would receive their financial aid packages with their acceptance letters in January. Students who apply through early decision must commit if they are accepted, though they can reject offers if they cannot afford to attend.
Early action applicants and those submitting for the regular deadline have until May to make their decisions. However, students who commit to their schools sooner might get preferences on housing.
“This is the time of year where campuses are usually sending out our preliminary aid offers in order to recruit students to our campus,” Brad Barnett, financial-aid director at James Madison University, tells The Wall Street Journal.
The new, shorter, simpler FAFSA form was announced as part of a 2020 omnibus spending and stimulus package that introduced other significant changes to the financial aid process that are projected to increase the number of students eligible for Pell Grants and the amount of aid they would receive.
McKibben from the Hope Center, who helped write the 2020 law that made significant changes to the FAFSA form and the overall financial aid process, notes that a lack of additional funding to the Office of Financial Aid may be a contributing factor to the delays.
To address concerns about the delays, the Department of Education says colleges, state grant offices, and scholarship groups will begin receiving students’ eligibility information at the end of January. Counselors, meanwhile, hope colleges offer flexible deadlines in response to the delays. As of Jan. 9, the FAFSA is supposed to be available to applicants 24 hours a day, The Washington Post reports.