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Changes to FAFSA cause headaches for students, schools


An updated version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA was supposed to go up on October 1st of 2023, it then got delayed.

Lesli Zeagler is a career counselor at Fayetteville High School and said when the form didn’t open on December first she was certain when it would come out.

“And I told everybody, I said, you know, what, make New Year's plans if you want, but it's going to come out on New Year's Eve,” she said. “ nd sure enough, it did. And it was open for about two hours on New Year's Eve, and that sent people into a tailspin."

According to the Department of Education the form is now open 24/7. But ever since this December 31st "soft launch" as the department of education called it, the process has been plagued with hiccups. Zeagler said the updates to the form have been top of mind for her students, yes, but even more so for parents.

"Having a child go to college is stressful," she said. “So you couple that this your child with your finances, those are the two most stressful things in a parent's life.”

This new application is the result of a 2020 law passed by congress, which compelled the department of education to update the FAFSA. The form helps federal and state agencies as well as university admissions and financial aid offices determine mostly need-based aid for students. And it has long been a dreaded and tedious task of applying to college.

Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the purpose of the updates was to simplify the form, get more people to fill it out and ultimately, disperse more aid. She believes these changes, which are now in place on the 2024-25 application, are broadly good.

"I think it will make the FAFSA easier for students to complete,” She said. “There's a lot of just trying to figure out how to answer questions that are worded differently and things like that. But generally speaking, the changes to the forum are good changes, and you know, hopefully not presenting a lot of issues."

The new form goes from the previous 108 questions to 64, it is also integrated with IRS data so applicants don't have to rely on manually inputting information from a prior year's tax returns.

"And then to complement that as well, many tweaks to the formula that determines student eligibility for federal financial aid, which makes the formula overall more generous,” Desjean said. “And one of those many changes had to do with the tables that are in the formula that are designed to protect a portion of a family's income from being assessed in the eligibility formula. So just acknowledging that, you know, not all of your income is available for college."

But after just a few weeks of being open, another problem emerged on the application. That formula had a math error that cost eligible students nearly 1.8 billion dollars of aid.

"What Congress did back in 2020, was they sort of reset the baseline for those income protection allowances, and made them more generous,” Desjean said. “And then they also stipulated to the Department of Education that each year they should be updating them to account for inflation.”

But the tables were never updated. So families who would have been below the income threshold to qualify for aid, were pushed into a higher bracket.

“The department did come out last week and say actually, that they will now make updates to those tables,” Desjean said. “Which will basically make the formula even more generous than Congress had in 2020. Because we've had several years of decently high inflation."

She said the Department of Education however, has not said how or when that will happen. And, that is a problem for students updating their financial aid and for college admissions officers. Many schools don’t have data for the 2024-25 cycle or at least don’t have the correct data.

Joey Hughes is executive director of admissions for the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, and said accurate FAFSA data is vital.

“On the college and University side, it’s about rushing and making sure students have the information they need,” he said. “And it's not just colleges and universities, it's also state organizations. So this year, Arkansas is preparing to do a need-based grant with its Arkansas challenge. It's called Arkansas challenge plus, and it's based on need and the FAFSA is also a part of that. So it's, it's kind of the crux point for giving students the full view of their their student financial aid and what they're going to have to be able to attend college.”

Every year between 18 and 25-thousand students apply for state scholarships, according to the state department of education. Lesli Zeagler said the earlier FAFSA delay and this calculation error have left some students in the dark on what aid they may qualify for.

"I think this causes a problem for a family for example, that their student aid report said, you know, you don't qualify for any need based aid,” she said. “When in reality they do, so they may make a decision about going to college, going to college A or college B, or not going to college period, because it's just not financially feasible."

In a press release, Arkansas' Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said the department would move up its deadline to complete the FAFSA to August 1st and conditionally approve state scholarships.

Joey Hughes said for a lot of smaller schools, decisions on higher education are made based on availability of financial aid.

"Meaning, you might have two colleges that you love, and they may be very different. And what it comes down to is the financial aid portion of the conversation,” he said. “But, universities like Ozarks, we take into consideration low income, but we also take into consideration the middle income families when we talk about our need based grants on campus. And the FAFSA gives us the information and the knowledge to be able to help those families as much as we can."

Zeagler says despite the problems, she tells her students not to give up on filling out the FAFSA.

"Just know that colleges know this is happening too,” she said. “Take a deep breath and say okay, well I have X amount of months to get this handled. And I'm going to take it a little bit at a time and you know, not stress about the whole thing."

She advises students to fill out the form during off hours (think after 8 p.m. and not on the weekends), save the application and complete it one chunk at a time and to contact schools directly to find out their deadline for the FAFSA.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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