A simplified student financial aid form finally will be launched by year-end, but the delay from its usual Oct. 1 date will make getting financial aid anything but simple, experts say.
The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for school year 2024-25 will be shorter than in the past (just 36 questions compared to 108); allow you to transfer tax data directly from the IRS; and include new formulas that should grant more aid to more students.
However, its availability to students and families is about three months later than usual – with the information sent to schools even later. Schools can begin receiving aid eligibility information by the end of January, the Department of Education said.
The string of delays, experts warned, will mean students and families will receive their aid offers later and must decide more hastily which college to accept and put a deposit on by the May 1 deadline, in the best-case scenario. In the worst case, students may end up leaving money on the table, experts say.
"I do worry that the compressed process is going to result in students missing out,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, Bright Horizons College Coach, a unit of child care operator Bright Horizons.
How might students miss out on eligible aid?
Multiple points in the process that could trip people up:
◾ The tighter timelines for students and families to complete the form and then, for schools to process and determine aid amounts “could result in lower FAFSA completion and college enrollment rates than in previous years,” the National College Attainment Network warned in a statement in November. “Those states with FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement will be operating under immense pressure to support students in a timely manner and ensure all requirements are met.”
◾ If applicants need to make corrections or additions, answer school questions, or provide more information, that can’t happen until February at the earliest, further delaying financial aid offers, Vasconcelos said.
◾ The new FAFSA won’t include links to state aid applications this year. Most states don’t require a separate form for state aid, but applicants in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont do – and they must be aware of this, find and complete the state application or potentially lose out, Vasconcelos said.
Who’s affected most by FAFSA delays?
The Department of Education said the new FAFSA should help “610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds receive Pell Grants.”
But the delays could stymie that this year, some say.
The delays will have the highest impact on “students from the lowest income backgrounds whose postsecondary enrollment has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels,” the National College Attainment Network said. “These students must wait for their aid offers to confirm that they can afford college. “
Early decision applicants also may be squeezed. “Students who applied early action to their target school may not receive their final financial aid package in time for their decision,” said Rich Finn, vice president at private student loan provider Discover Student Loans.
In the 2020-21 application cycle, about 17.8 million FAFSAs were submitted, Federal Student Aid data show.
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How can families and students maximize FAFSA?
Preparation will be more important than ever, experts say. “As soon as the FAFSA officially opens, I highly recommend students and families schedule an hour out of their day to fill out the form,” Finn said. “It’s more important than ever for families to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it opens as some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.”
To prevent further delays to your aid offer, here are some things you can do now before FAFSA opens:
◾ Set up FSA IDs. “Before, you could create an ID as you start your application, but this year, you need it to get started and it could be a three-day processing time to get it confirmed,” Vasconcelos said. The student needs one and at least one parent, depending on whether taxes are filed jointly or separately if the student is a dependent. Email addresses or mobile phone numbers are required.
◾ Check the school’s requirements. For example, does it only accept FAFSA or does it also accept the CSS profile, which can be done now? Are tax forms required? If so, get the copies ready.
◾ Determine who’s the custodial parent. What determines who a custodial parent is changed this year. It now means the parent who provides the most financial support, instead of the one with whom the student lives most of the time.
◾ Check your 529 education savings plans. If you have one 529 plan for multiple children, make sure you split them up, Vasconcelos said. Instead of including all 529 money as part of parents’ assets, the new FAFSA includes only the amount for the student applying for financial aid, she said. By splitting the 529 money into each child’s name, parents’ assets are reduced on the student’s application which can boost the amount of financial aid you receive.
◾ Know the value of a small family business or farm, if you own one. The new FAFSA formula counts the value of these as part of the family’s net worth.
◾ Prepare and send any information upfront if you have special circumstances. If the tax year 2022 information for the 2024-25 FAFSA is no longer representative of your financial situation because, say, a parent lost their job or incurred high medical debt, then gather the documents needed to show the special circumstance that a school should consider when determining your aid, Vasconcelos said. It’s imperative “to get all your ducks in a row upfront,” she said. “There’s no time for a lot of back and forth.”
Bonus tip for 2025-26 school year: Another change to FAFSA includes no longer counting 401(k) contributions toward a family’s income, Vasconcelos said. So go ahead and stuff your retirement accounts this year and improve your odds of receiving more aid, she said. The 2025-26 FAFSA will use tax year 2023 data.
Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why FAFSA 2024-25 changes may make getting financial aid even harder