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For the better part of two decades, the National College Attainment Network has been building toward the task that is now its singular focus: preparing America for a streamlined approach to applying for aid to attend college.
Recently Catherine Brown, NCAN’s senior director of policy and advocacy, was reminded how monumental her organization’s role is when she found herself chatting with another mom at a travel league baseball game.
“She works as a private college admissions counselor, so she’s deeply enmeshed in the admissions process,” said Brown. “And she didn’t know that there was going to be a new form, and that there was a delay in the FAFSA this year. The news just hadn’t penetrated.”
NCAN’s job is to ensure the news does penetrate — especially to state financial aid offices as NCAN works to train the trainers. But ultimately, the information must reach high school guidance counselors who perennially work with new crops of families to guide them through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That includes parents and caretakers who fill out the form with graduating high school seniors, encountering it for the first time. And the 13 million aspiring and returning college students who fill out the form each year.
Major changes in the form, combined with an expected delay in its release, are combining to intensify the work of spreading the word about the updated FAFSA.
“This is a long-awaited, very exciting, wonderful moment in higher ed, and it came through bipartisan compromise and partnership, which is increasingly rare and speaks to the groundwork that was laid,” Brown said. “But it’s really a massive transition we’re going through this year.”
Strada Education Foundation is helping NCAN train financial aid administrators working to help students and their families complete the 2024-25 FAFSA, expected to be released in December. A $30,000 grant to NCAN is supporting an in-person gathering this week where state financial aid leaders are connecting with one another and sharing information on how they are confronting the challenges of this year’s FAFSA rollout.
Thanks to the FAFSA Simplification Act approved by Congress in 2020, the 2024-25 FAFSA will include the most substantial updates since 1997, when the paper form went online. The FAFSA is used to determine whether students qualify for any college financial aid from the federal government — and is also used by many states and schools for financial aid eligibility at those levels.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid is calling the new form the Better FAFSA — a nod to its reduced number of questions and time needed to complete the form. The improvements also could lead to an increase in the number of completed applications and the number of students receiving Pell Grants.
The National College Attainment Network estimates prospective college students who did not complete the FAFSA missed out on $3.6 billion in Pell Grants in 2022 alone.
The new form also requires redevelopment of the technological platform on which the form lives, and the Department of Education announced in March that the form, typically available Oct. 1 of each year, will be ready in December. The delayed rollout disrupts the infrastructure state financial aid offices and public and private high schools across the U.S. use to help students complete the FAFSA — a timeline that generally includes community trainings in October and November.
“A lot of transition is going to have to happen in a very short period of time,” said Shareea Woods, director of the Texas College Access Network. “We’ve been doing trainings across the state, and every time we present on FAFSA changes, people are surprised — that these changes are happening, that there’s going to be a delay. Our concern is people being caught off guard by this.”
The delay also pushes back how quickly students will learn whether they are eligible for Pell Grants. Often, learning they qualify for federal support is an important moment in their decision to enroll in college.
“Students who are thinking about going to college, we’re able to use those two months to really convince and work with students who are on the fringe,” said Tae Kang, division chief of program administration and services for the California Student Aid Commission. “It’s really going to impact students who are thinking about the college-going culture: ‘Am I ready? Am I college-going material?’ It will change and alter decisions for some students who are on the fence.”
“That’s where we’re going to see the equity challenge,” agreed Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission and one of the agencies that is the first line of access to students in the state. “Those students who are a little nervous, the first-generation students — they’re the ones who think, ‘Am I really cut out for this? Can I afford it?’”
This year more than ever, the students who depend on federal financial aid to make college accessible are depending on a network of financial aid administrators.
“It takes a village,” Garcia said. “And now, all of the sudden, that whole village needs to be trained on the Better FAFSA.”
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A new and improved Free Application for Federal Student Aid expected late this year should provide opportunities for more students and their families to access money to pay for college. Yet the transition to this new form presents unprecedented challenges for those who work to help students complete it.
According to new Strada Education Foundation research, community college attendees who complete an associate degree or successfully transfer to a four-year institution value their education at rates comparable to or higher than recent bachelor’s degree completers. However, researchers found first-generation students rated the value of their community college education about 20 percentage points lower than those who are not first-generation students.