WASHINGTON — Virginia students and schools are still waiting for the federal government to announce the release date for the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a form that students must fill out to determine whether they can get federal financial aid for post-high school education.
The U.S. Department of Education announced on March 21 it will roll out the form in December, two months later than its usual Oct. 1 release.
Virginia universities, colleges and educational organizations said the delay and uncertainty about the exact launch date could delay students’ college applications and make it difficult for institutions to determine how much aid they need to offer.
Over the past three years, the federal government has been redesigning the FAFSA to make it less complex and allow more students to access financial aid.
According to the nonprofit Education Northwest, which has studied strategies to boost FAFSA completion, students who might be eligible for aid have frequently not completed the form due to misconceptions that their parents made too much income or a lack of awareness and information about how financial aid works.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act to streamline the financial aid process for students and families.
“The redesigned FAFSA form is the most ambitious and significant redesign of the federal student aid application and delivery in decades, and will significantly simplify how students, parents, and other educational stakeholders use the FAFSA form starting this year,” the U.S. Department of Education said in a March 27 release.
Among the planned changes, the form will have fewer questions, a simplified process and revised eligibility formulas. In particular, the “estimated family contribution” factor, which estimated how much money a family might be able to pay, will be replaced by the new “student aid index,” which focuses on how much financial help a student might qualify for.
The new form will also provide expanded access to federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to undergraduate students in “exceptional financial need,” by linking eligibility to family size and the federal poverty level.
Research conducted by the Brookings Institution, a think tank that conducts policy research, found the changes could have both positive and negative impacts, both making college more affordable for lower-income students and eliminating the discount students receive when they have siblings enrolled in college.
The institution provides a web tool for applicants to understand how the new form may impact their eligibility.
Like their counterparts nationally, Virginia schools and education organizations are worried the delays will put scheduling pressures on students, counselors and college administrators.
On Oct. 13, several national education organizations that represent administrators from such states as Virginia, including the American Council on Education and Community Colleges, sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the federal government to announce the new FAFSA launch date.
“We understand that the Better FAFSA transition is complex, and that many security and other checks must take place before it can go live. We are not requesting that the form be released on an accelerated timeline that compromises any of the work that has to take place,” the groups wrote. “But with less than three months before January 1, the latest date by which the FAFSA can be released under statute, the continued lack of a public release date risks … our members’ ability to do all they can to support a smooth rollout.”
In Virginia, several agencies also spoke positively about the FAFSA changes but worried about delays to the launch date.
“We know that people who attend Virginia’s Community Colleges will appreciate a more streamlined FAFSA experience,” said Laurie Owens, financial aid director for Virginia’s Community Colleges, in a statement. “We are eager to see the improved new FAFSA as soon as possible.”
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the coordinating body for the state’s colleges and universities, said the delay could especially impact first-generation and low-income students.
“First-time applicants will not have the usual level of support as they begin what to them is a foreign process,” said SCHEV spokesman Bob Spieldenner in a statement. Returning students, he noted, will also have the added burden of “unlearning” an old process.
Others impacted by the delay also include access providers, which help students navigate the application process and must train staff in the new system, and financial aid offices charged with processing applications and creating aid packages.
Spieldenner advised students and parents to begin creating separate federal student aid accounts, as “having this ready in advance can smooth the actual FAFSA filing process.”
The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately respond to questions about the delay.
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