The 2024–25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is now available through a soft launch by the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office of the U.S. Education Department (ED). It is online at Studentaid.gov and Fafsa.gov. The FSA released the following announcement on December 31, 2023:
“During the soft launch, the FAFSA form will be available while we monitor site performance and form functionality. We will have planned pauses for site maintenance and to make technical updates as needed to provide you with a better experience.
“You can complete the form to apply for financial aid to help pay for attendance at college between July 1, 2024, and June 30, 2025. You will have plenty of time to complete the FAFSA form. If you do submit your form during the soft launch, your information will be saved, and you won’t need to resubmit your form or any related information. If your form is unavailable when you or your family members try to access it, please try again later. We’ll provide your FAFSA eligibility information to your school(s) and state in late January.”
It’s an understatement to call this a disappointment for all concerned with the orderly and timely disbursement of the $7 billion in Federal student aid for 2024-25 as well as billions more through state and institutional aid programs. The only actual result of the FSA’s action is that the revised FAFSA will meet the Federal statutory requirement to be available prior to January 1, 2024.
How we Got Here
Submission of the FAFSA is an essential step for all students seeking Federal, state, institutional, and private financial aid. To improve the Federal financial aid process, the FAFSA Simplification Act was enacted by Congress on December 27, 2020. Its dual purpose was to make it easier for students and families to complete the FAFSA and to make the allocation of Federal aid funds more equitable.
The FAFSA simplification project has been beset by problems that ED has attributed to the complexity of the changes. Even student advocates and lawmakers who were initially sympathetic have become frustrated with the ED’s repeated delays and omissions.
Congress recognized that much time and effort would be necessary for the ED to prepare for the sweeping changes in the Act. As a result, the Act’s provisions were not scheduled to become fully effective until July 1, 2022.
Even given this extensive period for development, the ED requested permission from Congress to announce in June 2021 that the Act’s provisions and the changes to the form itself would not become until the release of the FAFSA on October 1, 2023, for 2024-25. This postponement also proved inadequate, so the ED announced in mid-2023 that the new FAFSA would not be released until “…some time in December”.
Not a Real “Soft Launch”
On the last day of 2023, ED announced that there would be a “soft launch” of the FAFSA rather than a general release. A soft launch is a marketing term referring to the limited release of a product or service, usually only to a segment of the target market, prior to general release. The provider uses a soft launch to test the functionality of the product or service and the operation of the systems behind it. This allows adjustments to be made before the expensive marketing campaign that precedes a general release.
It is clear from the FSA’s announcement that what is now underway is not a soft launch. It merely indicates that data input will be stored by the ED until it is accessed at a later point for processing. This process will not test the form’s functionality or the capabilities of system behind it because actual support operations will not begin until late January at the earliest.
Late Launch Worsens an Existing Problem
The problem that arises from what’s essentially a non-launch of the FAFSA compounds an existing problem for 2024-25; the release has already been delayed from the standard date of October 1, more than three months ago. Deadlines for a student’s acceptance of college offer letters have not been delayed in tandem with the FAFSA delay. Colleges need a certain amount of lead time to prepare for their incoming freshman class. Therefore, they have retained their traditional enrollment deadlines of May 1.
Cascading delays mean that students will receive their financial aid offer letters late and will be forced to decide hastily which college to attend by the May 1 enrollment deadline. This is the best-case scenario. In the worst case, students will be forced to leave a substantial amount of financial aid unclaimed.
The delay in its release adds to another major problem with the 2024-25 FAFSA — it will not include an important adjustment in the calculation of eligibility for financial aid that was mandated by the Act. Specifically, the FAFSA will not account for the impact of inflation since 2020. This omission will result in many students receiving less in financial aid than they are entitled to for 2024-25.
No Recourse Through the Appeals Process
In a normal year, a student may appeal if they can make a case that their Federal financial aid is less than they are entitled to receive under pertinent laws and regulations. However, since the lateness of the form’s release and the lack of the inflation adjustment is the official policy of ED, neither will be considered a legitimate basis for appeal.
Early Press Coverage
In an article on New Year’s Day, Ron Lieber of the New York Times, after trying to complete the new FAFSA for his daughter on December 31, reported that:
“I began around 2 p.m., and the FAFSA website greeted me ominously: ‘The FAFSA form is available periodically while we monitor site performance and update the form to provide you with a better experience.’ It wasn’t available then, or in the 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 pm hours.
“Then, in the 8 pm hour, success! The site opened, and I managed to answer several questions. I forged ahead, but I didn’t get much further. Did the form save our data? It was supposed to, but I couldn’t be sure. Once I logged out and tried to log in again the entire site was once again unavailable.
“It was not necessary for me — or anyone — to try to complete the form as soon as the site became available. If you need to fill out a FAFSA this year, the department won’t even be sending your information to colleges until ‘later in January.’ That said, college financial aid administrators sure would like to have the information as soon as possible.’
Medora Lee, writing in the USA Today edition of December 31 concerning the FSA’s press announcement, observed that:
“Colleges won’t even receive any information they need to determine aid until the end of January, the Department of Education said. Since no other deadlines for submission or decisions have been moved back, the entire process has been compressed, making it more important than ever to stay focused and organized and get everything right the first time or risk leaving money on the table.”