Frustrating Financial Aid: A Family Guide to the New FAFSA
Like many parents of high school seniors, my family has been knee deep in college applications since October. My son managed to meet all of the deadlines to request transcripts, request recommendations, and apply to colleges, but now we are in the next step: submitting financial aid forms. In fact, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was the first thing on my list for 2024…and then my pen stopped working, which I’m hoping isn’t an omen.
Applying for merit- and need-based aid has been trickier than expected, because the primary form used for all financial aid determinations, the FAFSA, was overhauled and thus was delayed until its “soft release” on New Year’s eve 2023. The “soft release” involved frustrated parents and students unable to access the form. I even joked with a friend that “soft release” may need to be defined as a failure, as in, “Hey mom, I soft released the cleanup of my room!” Cue: filthy room.
It is now ten days after the soft release of FAFSA and things have improved, but many first-timers are confused about who needs to fill out the FAFSA and when to fill out the FAFSA, so I will provide some pointers for those who are brand new to FAFSA. Also refer to the FAFSA site, via FAFSA youtube videos, or on reddit (in the case of glitches) for more information.
Anyone who is a potential “contributor” which includes students, spouses, parents, stepparents, guardians, and anyone else with a potential financial role. This means each contributor must create an account. On a personal note, I mistakenly thought that FAFSA would send links to my spouse and son when I added their data to my form, but no, each contributor needs to initiate an account. Ask other contributors to create an account as soon as possible, because new accounts often require social security number verification that can take one to three days. (Yes, Virginia. This is a frustrating process.)
When is the FAFSA due?
As soon as possible. Each state or school may have their own deadline and FAFSA has a deadline, but experienced parents know that there is a finite amount of aid available, which means getting in your completed FAFSA form from all contributors should be a priority. Due to issues during the initial launch, they said they will not be releasing information to organizations until the end of January. As of January 10, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education announced that over one million 2024-25 FAFSA forms had been submitted.
What do I need to fill out the FAFSA?
You need social security numbers of all contributors, 2022 tax forms, alimony and/or child support payments, financial documents showing balances and net worth (e.g., savings, checking, investments, businesses, secondary properties) from all contributors, and a little patience. The tax forms requested are from the last year filed (i.e., in 2024, it would be 2022 tax forms) and the financial documents are to be current. I’ve seen that they want you to report all monies, including assets “stuffed in your mattress,” which means you need to be honest and as complete as possible. Any contributor lacking a social security number can still create an account.
How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA?
About 10-20 minutes if you have all of your information at hand. For other contributors, it may take less time.
Are there any glitches in the new form?
Yes! The first glitch has been that the form has been occasionally inaccessible as they continue to work on it. This happened periodically, including the first three days and first weekend of the FAFSA release.
The second major glitch is an account creation glitch, or as one college administrator called the “loop of doom.” Essentially, for some contributors, it will not let you add your address to create an account. If you add your address, it will loop back to the page as if you did something wrong. Kudos to my son for finding the reddit solution for this glitch, which involves deleting your address (and sometimes phone number) to create the account. Later on, there will be an opportunity to add contact information.
A friendly parent from my high school just shared another major glitch: some contributors have been invited to fill out the form (by their student or another contributor), but when they go to their account, no form is to be found. To be honest, my spouse asked me about the same issue last night, so I'm "thrilled" to find out that it is just another glitch. Per a couple of reddit threads, it is a "known issue" where applications are not showing up in contributors' accounts even if the social security numbers match--of course, there is "no known timeframe of when this will be resolved." (updated 11/11/24)
I finally got through via FAFSA chat today regarding this last issue, the FAFSA representative said,
"If you are unable to view any cases open in your activity, we would advise for the student to resubmit the parent invite. With the soft launch still in effect we are experiencing issues with the availability of the FAFSA form and we would advise to try again at a later time.
This is currently something we are looking into, several have had the same issue. I would try to have your son initiate the invite on his portal to see if that makes a difference. We currently do not have a timeframe as to when all of these issues will be fully resolved, i apologize." (updated 1/12/24)
DO NOT TAKE THIS ADVICE unless you record your financial data first. My entire FAFSA form was deleted by this process. If you choose to go this route, be sure to print out what you have already done to make it easier to re-enter all of the information. I'm still working out the kinks and will have another update soon. (updated 1/14/24)
How else do I apply for financial aid?
Be aware that the FAFSA is not the only financial aid tool used by colleges. Check your colleges to see what other forms they may require. In the absence of the FAFSA’s availability in 2023, a number of schools required the College Scholarship Service (CSS) form to be submitted in addition to the FAFSA. However, most colleges have additional applications, essays, and requirements for various financial aid at their schools. In many cases, parents and guardians do not receive these notices, so check in with your Senior to see what has come into their email inbox. Thus far, the majority of my son’s colleges have required additional forms and information, including essays.
Final thoughts on college applications and financial aid forms: students are expected to be responsible for initiating and completing nearly all of the forms, except those outlined above. Nevertheless, most students will need both support and some reminders. Try to make this process as pleasant and collaborative as possible. Each family should recognize the extreme pressures on our kids to do school work and after school activities or work while dipping their toes in the adult world of forms, applications, and finances.
National organizations, Virginia organizations like VirginiaCan and GRASP, and school counselors are resources to help students who may have less support in the home. Also, many local high schools host FAFSA information sessions to explain how FAFSA works. In Fairfax, the College Partnership Program has a program to support middle school students, to reduce barriers from accessing college.