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Snapshots from the new FAFSA front

Evie Works On A Laptop. She Is Wearing A Blue Quilted Jacket.

Since the United States Department of Education announced a significant overhaul to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) more than a year ago, educators, financial aid experts and community-based organizations have teamed up to help students navigate the new form. In advance of form’s roll-out, many students and their families established FSA IDs and prepared necessary financial documents.

Now that the new FAFSA has been live for just over a month, we checked in with College Possible senior coach Evie to hear how students are faring on the financial aid front.

Evie serves students at McDaniel High School.

Evie is a coach at McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland. Since the FAFSA launched, she has supported three students in finalizing their applications. (This was as of January 17.) Many more students have completed their portions of the application and are waiting for their parents/guardians to work on their sections.

When the FAFSA launched on December 31, it was technically in a “soft launch” phase that included frequent interruptions for site maintenance. “The first week was the rockiest in terms of students and families being able to access the FAFSA,” says Evie, “The site would be up and then down again.”

However, since January 6, the site has been live consistently. “This is the great news,” Evie emphasized, “Once students are able to access the new FAFSA, they’re finding it to be fairly quick and straightforward.” Evie highlighted three primary observations from her work with students.

FAFSA’s new direct data exchange is a game-changer

One key feature of the new FAFSA is its use of direct data exchange, meaning that the form directly accesses and inputs financial data based on users’ social security or tax identification numbers.  While the previous FAFSA was based on self-reported financial information, the new form uses technology similar to that of dynamic software like Turbo Tax. Once students or their parents/guardians enter their identifying information, the FAFSA does most of the legwork.

“What I appreciate about direct data exchange is that it’s eliminated some of the most challenging questions that were standard on the old form,” Evie noted. “Students don’t have to hunt around for dollar amounts and fill them in manually. Most high schoolers aren’t privy to specific aspects of their families’ finances anyway, so the direct data exchange on the new FAFSA is proving to be simpler.” And overall, direct data exchange seems to be making the process of completing the FAFSA faster, with students and parents/guardians spending about 30 minutes each on their respective sections.

AmeriCorps coaches are supporting students through unexpected hurdles

In a piece published last summer, we emphasized the significance of the FAFSA’s shift to a two-part form, with distinct sections to be completed by students and parents/guardians. And while this new structure has its benefits — namely that it can empower students to maintain a level of independence in completing their own section of the form — a few unexpected challenges have popped up as a result.

Most significantly, Evie emphasized that completing the new FAFSA has been especially challenging for parents without social security numbers. Previous versions of the FAFSA allowed parents to input a placeholder value and move on to the other parts of the form; however, parents are now required to call the Department of Education and provide identifying information over the phone before completing other sections. “As you can imagine, the phone lines have been swamped,” Evie says. “As a coach, I’ve been supporting students one-on-one to persist through long hold times and continue to reach out to make progress on their form.” Because parents and guardians cannot begin their section of the form until the student section is completed, it’s imperative that students stay vigilant. For coaches like Evie, remaining available by text message and email has been the best way to show up for students.

Additionally, many students continue to support parents/guardians whose primary or native language is not English as they complete their sections of the form. Though the FAFSA plans to expand the number of languages in which the form is available, many students continue to be involved in the process of completing both sections of the application.

College Possible coaches and student support staff are optimistic about the new FAFSA

After students and their parents complete their FAFSA sections, students receive a submission summary, showing their student aid index and Pell Grant eligibility, if applicable. The summary will also let students know if they’ve been flagged for verification and will be asked to submit more information. Though none of the students she works with have received their summaries yet, Evie is hopeful about what’s to come.

“There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the roll-out of the new FAFSA, but we’re doing our best to focus on the positives. Students are gaining confidence as they complete the new application independently, and they’re learning to advocate for themselves and their financial futures.”

On January 30, the Department of Education updated its timeline for when students can expect to receive their aid offers, projecting a release of full financial aid letters in early-mid April. Because of this significant delay, it will be imperative for students to utilize the support of college coaches and other resources to assess their best-fit college options. In the meantime, coaches like Evie will continue to support students as they walk through one of the most important components of the college application process.

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