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The FAFSA is changing. Here’s how to apply for student financial aid

College student
Vivian Shih
Special to NPR
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid form — often referred to as the FAFSA — will go live by the end of the month, but that’s only because the application is being simplified, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid form — often referred to as the FAFSA — will go live by Dec. 31, months behind its normal annual launch date, but that’s only because the application is being simplified, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The exact go-live date has not yet been confirmed.

Every year, millions of prospective and current college students complete the FAFSA to determine their financial aid for the following school year, including federal loans, grants and work-study funds as well as state and school-specific aid.

It normally opens on Oct. 1 every year but has been delayed by over two months because of the forthcoming changes required by the FAFSA Simplification Act that was signed into law in December 2020.

The Belleville News-Democrat talked to Katie Dawson, director of financial aid, veteran services and student employment at Southwestern Illinois College, to learn more about what students and their families can expect with the new and improved FAFSA.

What's new?

There are two reasons for the changes, Dawson said. “They want to make it easier for families to apply for financial aid. They want to help more students qualify for more aid.”

First, there are changes to the application itself to make it simpler, she explained.

A student and any contributors, like a parent or spouse, used to have to sit down together and answer all the questions in one application. There was an option to pull information from the Internal Revenue Service if desired, but otherwise everything had to be entered manually.

With the new application, there’s an interface between the FAFSA and IRS to allow for an automatic data transfer.

When a student or contributor starts the FAFSA, they will be prompted to consent to the data transfer from the IRS. When they get to the section of the form about financials, their federal tax information from the IRS will be automatically entered and they won’t see the questions.

“It’s going to kind of limit the number of questions and limit the room for error when they’re filling it out because it’s already brought over from the IRS,” Dawson said.

Another big change aside from the IRS data transfer is that now contributors will all have their own questions to answer.

For example, Dawson said if a student is at school and goes to a counselor or financial aid office, they can get help filling out their entire section. The FAFSA will help them determine who needs to be a contributor to their application and then send invitations to those individuals to complete their portion on their own time.

“It’s intended I think to kind of abbreviate each person’s experience and make it a little easier for people who maybe aren’t all together all the time to still be a part of the FAFSA,” she said.

Other changes on the new form Dawson mentioned include:

  • Parents who don’t have a social security number will be able to create an FSA ID and participate in their student’s FAFSA, which wasn’t previously possible.
  • Students will be allowed to include up to 20 schools on their FAFSA. In the past, the limit was 10.
  • The FAFSA will still ask for the number of family members in college, but it won’t be a factor in determining financial aid eligibility. As a result, some families will see a change in how much money they receive. It’s now more for schools to use if they want to for determining institutional awards.
  • There will be some new demographic questions on the form for statistical purposes, but that information will not be shared with schools.

Expanded Eligibility

In addition to changes on the application itself, there are changes to the way eligibility for Federal Pell Grants — need-based grants available to undergraduates — is determined.

“They’ve added some criteria on who qualifies for the maximum amount of the Pell, so they’re trying to give more to the people who already qualified for it, and then they’ve also added some different criteria that would help families that maybe before could qualify for a need-based loan, they might now qualify for a small Pell Grant,” Dawson said.

According to the most recent update from the U.S. Department of Education, about 610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds will be eligible for Pell Grants. Pell recipients will also receive more aid and nearly 1.5 million more will get the maximum grant, which for 2023-24 was $7,395. Eligibility will be linked to family size and the federal poverty level, the update says.

If a student is not eligible for a Pell Grant, colleges and universities will still use the data provided on the FAFSA to determine the student’s eligibility for other scholarships, Dawson said.

The form is also used to determine eligibility for federal loans, which unlike grants, need to be repaid.

Subsidized loans are need-based and interest doesn’t start accruing until a student enters repayment post-graduation. Unsubsidized loans, however, are available to anyone regardless of financial need and start accruing interest immediately after disbursement.

“Everyone should fill out a FAFSA, regardless of whether or not they expect to find out that they’re eligible for a Pell grant, because there are other funding sources that the information can be used to help find different ways to pay for college,” Dawson said.

'Earlier the better'

“In any given year, we always recommend the earlier the better with filling out the FAFSA,” Dawson said.

That’s because there are different types of funding that are available on a “first-come, first-served” basis, like Illinois’ MAP grants.

Another reason to apply earlier, Dawson said, is if a student will have a choice to make based on financial aid package offers from schools. In that case, they’ll need to get their information to the school as early as they can so schools have the opportunity to review it and figure out what they have available.

In a normal year, the FAFSA opens Oct. 1, students should fill it out in October and then in December or early January they start receiving offer letters or some communications from schools about where they are in the financial aid process so that students can make decisions in the early spring.

With the delayed opening sometime in December this year, Dawson said she would anticipate mid-spring offer letters and decisions.

“There will be some delay,” she said.

For those wanting to get a head start, Dawson said to start by creating an FSA ID — their username and password needed to access the FAFSA form on StudentAid.gov and other U.S. Department of Education systems.

While filers used to be able to create their FSA ID right before starting the FAFSA, now there will be a processing time of 1-3 days due to the new data transfer. Students and their contributors can create their FSA ID now so they can be ready to go when the FAFSA form goes live in December.

Advice for completing the FAFSA

Dawson recommends gathering information — such as your FSA ID username and password, social security number and tax documents — before completing the FAFSA.

“Just having as much information handy as possible when you sit down to start is going to be really helpful and help eliminate some stress,” she said.

She also said to not be afraid of asking questions and seeking help from guidance counselors or financial aid experts.

“It confuses everyone the first time they go through it because it does ask questions that you’ve not been asked before,” Dawson said.

If you make a mistake on your FAFSA, rest assured that “it can be fixed.”

“If something gets answered incorrectly, you can always work with the financial aid office at your institution to fix it if need be,” she said.

Dawson said she also likes to remind people that financial aid can change every year.

“Don’t get discouraged or don’t assume that whatever your truth is the first time you fill out the FAFSA is going to be what’s true the next time you would fill it out,” she said.

Finally, she recommends following up with your financial aid office to ask about other options, because the FAFSA is just the starting point of the financial aid process. There are many different kinds of funding out there depending on what you want to study, what type of school you go to and your individual background as a student.

Additional resources

SWIC’s Office of Financial Aid, Veteran Services and Student Employment located at the Belleville campus provides free FAFSA assistance and other financial aid advising to anyone in the area. Resources and information are also available on SWIC’s financial aid web page.

Additional resources and updated information will be available soon on StudentAid.gov, which also has YouTube videos providing an overview of the coming changes.

Fastweb, a free scholarship search platform, has a FAFSA FAQ and frequent articles related to the FAFSA and other financial aid news.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the state’s college access and financial aid agency, also has a variety of free resources to anyone needing assistance, including:

  • College application and financial aid workshops throughout the state, including after the FAFSA launch in December, to provide students and families with direct assistance. To see what workshops are available, check with high school counselors for events within or sponsored by your school or check ISAC’s regularly-updated list of public events.
  • One-on-one assistance from local ISACorps members, who are recent college graduates trained to serve as mentors to high school students as they navigate the college application and financial aid processes.
  • The ISAC College Q&A texting service, available in English and Spanish, allowing students and parents to text their college and financial aid questions and get answers from ISAC experts.
  • The ISAC Student Portal, which offers a range of online resources for college and scholarship searches, financial aid and more.
  • The ISAC Call Center at 1-800-899-ISAC offering information and assistance.
  • The First Generation Scholars Network to support students who will be the first in their family to graduate from college.

This story will be updated with the date of the new FAFSA form’s release once the U.S. Department of Education announces it.

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.