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. 

“You could ask our schools, ‘What is the one thing that’s keeping them up at night?’” said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a member-based organization that serves 3,000 colleges, trade schools, and universities. “It’s the rollout of the FAFSA.”

The improvements instituted through the FAFSA Simplification Act approved by Congress in 2020, which will be fully implemented with the 2024-25 FAFSA, include the most substantial updates since the paper form transitioned to online in 1997. The form is used to determine whether students qualify for any college financial aid from the federal government — and also is used by many states and schools for financial aid eligibility at those levels.

Among the major changes, the act overhauled the federal methodology formula for determining eligibility and expanded Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students. In addition, the form, typically available Oct. 1 of each year, will be delayed this year until December.

Those developments — a new form with new methodology plus a later arrival — are leading the nationwide network of state financial aid offices, postsecondary institutions, private and public high schools, and guidance counselors to hasten their preparations to help students and their families complete the new form and understand what it means for their futures.

A $322,500 Strada Education Foundation grant to NASFAA is designed to help ease the transition for the thousands of individuals across the country who are part of the financial aid infrastructure, charged with helping students and their families complete the FAFSA and understand how the dollars it can qualify them for will help make college accessible.

The grant allows NASFAA to develop reference guides for financial aid administrators, update its most valuable existing instruments, and revise its Student Aid Index Modeling Tool, which provides financial aid administrators the ability to give students immediate feedback on how much aid they might expect. The grant also creates a new online community for financial aid  professionals and provides one-on-one consultation sessions with financial aid staff at under-resourced institutions. 

Information traditionally available only to NASFAA members, such as U.S. Department of Education sessions at the NASFAA conference and the AskRegs Knowledgebase for questions on FAFSA simplification, are also made available to all through this grant. Strada’s support “really opens the doors to all schools, which sometimes can’t afford to be part of all these organizations,” Draeger said.

The Department of Education calls the new FAFSA the Better FAFSA, and these resources are aimed at ensuring it has the best possible introduction.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’ll be the biggest change we’ve seen in the federal formula in decades, so there’s a lot riding on getting it right,” Draeger said. “Institutions across the country are understandably excited but nervous about making sure we get this rollout right for students and their families.”