I Spent New Year’s Eve Trying to Do the FAFSA. It Didn’t Go Well.

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I Spent New Year’s Eve Trying to Do the FAFSA. It Didn’t Go Well.


Since Congress ordered a simplification of the federal financial aid system in 2020, the U.S. Department of Education has faced the complex task of actually changing the increasingly important formula for determining who gets what.

Grants and loans depend on receipts and outputs of the dreaded FAFSA form, which is usually available on October 1st. The new form was scheduled to be implemented in 2023, but the department has been working on it well beyond October, November and December.

The government promised to open the digital doors by the end of December. Since my older son is heading off to college this fall, I spent Sunday afternoon and evening accessing the website and filling out the form.

Completion proved difficult. Here’s what happened.

I started around 2 p.m. and the FAFSA (short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid) website greeted me ominously: “The FAFSA form will be available periodically as we monitor the site’s performance and update the form to provide you with a better experience to offer.”

It was not available at that time or at 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 p.m. I started documenting my searches in threads.

Coincidentally (or not), I received an email out of the blue at 6 p.m. from Johanny Adames, a department press officer, preemptively declaring our communications confidential. (In my journalism rules, this is a negotiation and not a dictate.)

But the message simply pointed me to a public announcement from the department indicating that the promised FAFSA availability in December was actually a “soft launch,” with the form “for certain periods in the coming years.” days” would be available. Still, the statement included the following: “Students and families may complete and submit FAFSA Form 2024-25 online through December 31.”

This felt like a promise, or at least a challenge, so I continued. At 8 p.m., a Threads user named “jkvaal” started following me. Was it James Kvaal, the undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Education in charge of higher education? I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s evening, except maybe my own. (My family was elsewhere until later and my 18 year old helped me from a distance.)

Then, even in the 8 p.m. hour, success! The website opened and I managed to answer several questions in the Personal Circumstances section. This is the first of five sections that together could contain only 18 queries, down from up to 100 or more in previous versions of the form.

The website design was clean. The interface was reasonably user-friendly. But things weren’t always clear. At some point the website told me that both my daughter and I had already started forms, although neither of us had, at least as far as I could tell.

Eventually I made progress, but didn’t get much further. There was no way to email me about my daughter’s credentials that would allow me to give the Internal Revenue Service permission to transfer income information into the form. Well, there was a way, but the email button didn’t work.

Did the form save our data? It was supposed to be that way, but I wasn’t sure. There was evidence that the Social Security Administration was checking her income history, so that’s not insignificant. After logging out and logging back in to fix the email to your father issue, the entire site was unavailable again.

In a statement on Monday, the Department for Education said: “The form was open to the public for short periods during which thousands of people successfully completed their application while we monitored performance in real time.”

“Integrating real-time learning and breaks is consistent with best practices, especially for a new site that needs to provide permutations for many different people’s situations and involves updating dozens of systems, some of which have not been updated in nearly 50 years. “ the department added.

There was no need for me or anyone else to fill out the form once the website was available. If you need to fill out a FAFSA this year, the department won’t send your information to colleges until “later in January.” However, college financial aid administrators definitely want to receive the information as quickly as possible.

The department is faced with an enormous task here. I have full sympathy for the government workers who have to revamp a website that will likely be used by more than 15 million people in the coming months. The department staff probably worked until Christmas and hats off to them.

Still, I wish they had waited another year and gotten this done by late summer so everyone could have a full academic year to get used to the new format and formulas for determining aid. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that, so I’m just going to keep throwing myself at this thing like it’s Ticketmaster and Beyoncé tickets are on the line. Fortunately, federal funding for student loans isn’t running out, especially not as quickly as stadium seats are disappearing.



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2024-01-01 20:12:29

www.nytimes.com