The new FAFSA has been a pain point for some families struggling to fill it out as they experience technical glitches and other obstacles.
Difficulty completing the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, can heighten stress for students deciding to pursue higher education, particularly when one of their primary concerns is affordability. The form is used to apply for financial aid from the federal government, and it’s a prerequisite that many states and higher education institutions use to assess eligibility for aid they award.
The FAFSA has historically been a challenge to many students and their parents. I have worked in the student aid industry for more than 24 years and have helped many families, many of whom were overwhelmed with the financial and asset questions. Despite difficulties with the U.S. Department of Education’s soft launch of the 2024-2025 FAFSA, families should persist and, if necessary, seek help getting it filed.
Common Problems With the New FAFSA
The new FAFSA was redeveloped under the federal FAFSA Simplification Act to make the process easier, and it was highly anticipated within the industry. As expected with such a major redesign, we have seen some applicants deal with several technical issues:
- The full name of the school is not displaying for some schools, making it difficult to determine which to select.
- In some cases, multiple campuses for schools are showing up in the pick list when only one campus should display.
- Parents without Social Security numbers have reported they are unable to contribute to the FAFSA.
- Students who incorrectly select “eligible noncitizen” are prevented from completing and submitting the form.
In some cases, we have seen students run into issues signing the form because the user must scroll to the bottom of the page to notice the prompt to progress to the next screen to sign it.
Some families have had to sign out of the form and sign back in to complete it.
While some issues have been identified, most students who we at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency work with have been able to successfully submit their application. If the site is down for maintenance, families are encouraged to check back later.
How We Got Here
The Department of Education launched the newly redesigned FAFSA on Dec. 31, indicating they would first institute a soft launch period that includes planned outages to maintain the site and make needed updates to create a better user experience for students and families.
During these pauses, users already working on the form may be able to complete it, but other users may not be able to start or resume work on it. Users who go online during a temporary pause should check back later to complete the form.
The form has been reduced from 108 questions to about 36 questions, depending on a family’s circumstances. One of the best benefits of the new FAFSA is that it links to the IRS for automatic tax information transfer, reducing many of the financial questions that have been pain points for families.
Tips for Completing the New FAFSA
For the best FAFSA completion outcomes, students and parents should create a StudentAid.com account at least four days prior to attempting to complete the FAFSA. The Department of Education does several security checks to verify identity information, and this time frame is necessary to accomplish that.
Students and contributors – parents, stepparents, spouses – should be prepared to complete the FAFSA together for the most seamless user experience.
The Department of Education advised that it would not begin transmitting FAFSA information to schools, state agencies or other entities until late January 2024, so there is no need for students to rush to complete the FAFSA before then.
While the redesigned FAFSA has had a bumpy start, families should rest assured there is help available.
Sources for Free FAFSA Help
Families that need additional help should check to see if college access professionals in their area are hosting any events to assist families with FAFSA completion. In Pennsylvania, for example, PHEAA has a team of 13 higher education access partners strategically located throughout the state. We partner with local high schools, colleges and community organizations to help families complete the FAFSA.
Hosting organizations coordinate events with their local access partner to walk families through the FAFSA, step by step, and are often accompanied by college financial aid professionals to answer questions families have while they are completing the form. Access partners also conduct financial aid nights throughout the state to help students and families understand the various financial aid options available to them and provide an overview of the FAFSA and state grant application process.
There are dozens of similar entities located throughout the U.S., and I encourage you to research the nonprofit that can walk you through the FAFSA process.
It’s very important for students to complete the FAFSA every year that they anticipate needing financial assistance to pay for college. Although the new FAFSA was delayed in 2023 as it underwent major changes, the form typically opens Oct. 1 every year.
The Department of Education is tracking issues with the new FAFSA and providing workarounds, when available. Users should report any difficulties with the application to the Federal Student Aid information center at 1-800-433-3243.
The FAFSA has come a long way from the long and arduous task it once was. In past years, families had to navigate many more financial questions that caused dread and consternation every time the form was mentioned. The new process is intended to streamline the financial aid application process while expanding access to federal student aid.