Big changes are coming to a notoriously complex form that students need to submit to qualify for college financial aid — but the changes will mostly appear gradually, over the next few years.
The latest version of the form known as the FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, will become available online on Oct. 1 for aid awarded for the 2022-23 academic year. The changes to the form and its financial aid calculations aim to make the FAFSA simpler as well as to encourage more students to complete it and to expand aid eligibility for lower-income students.
There will be at least two notable changes this year, which also will add to confusion. Having a drug conviction while receiving student aid or failing to register with the Selective Service System, the federal database maintained in case of military draft, no longer affects an applicant's eligibility for financial aid. However, those questions remain on the form.
The Federal Student Aid office said the congressional changes came too late to remove them for this fall.
The upshot is that a student's response to the questions will not disqualify the applicant from financial aid, said Justin Draeger, president and chief executive of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
The FAFSA collects financial details about students and their families and acts as a portal to grants, scholarships and loans for higher education. Last year, Congress approved changes to the form and the financial aid process, trimming the number of questions by about two-thirds and tweaking its underlying formula for determining who receives aid.
The approved changes include replacing the so-called "expected family contribution" and replacing it with a "student aid index." The updated formula broadens access to federal need-based Pell grants and shields more of a family's income from financial aid calculations. And in a move that has already prompted some opposition, the revised formula eliminates a break for families with multiple students in college at the same time.
Taken together, the changes represent a significant overhaul of the student aid process and will take time to put into effect and communicate, the student aid office says. Most changes will be put in place for the 2023-24 or 2024-25 school years.
Here are some other questions about financial aid.
Q: When should I fill out the FAFSA?
A: As soon as possible after it becomes available on Oct. 1, financial aid experts say. Many states and colleges use the form to determine scholarship aid, and some programs award the money on a first-come, first-served basis until available funds are depleted. A list of deadlines for both federal and state aid programs is available on the federal student aid website.
Plus, while the federal deadline for filing a FAFSA extends into the summer after a given academic year, waiting until then means you will probably be eligible only for loans. The FAFSA for the current academic year, for instance, has a federal filing deadline of June 30, 2022.
Q: Do I have to file the FAFSA every year?
A: Yes. You will need to resubmit it each year of college to qualify for financial aid. The upcoming FAFSA will require financial details from the tax year 2020. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, some students saw their income or their family's income fluctuate. If the information on your FAFSA doesn't accurately reflect your current financial situation, complete the form — but then contact your college's financial aid office to explain the situation.
Q: Will I have to submit extra information after filing the FAFSA?
A: Possibly. Each year, about a quarter of applicants — mainly lower-income students who qualify for need-based Pell grants — are flagged for "verification," which means the government asks for additional documents like tax returns to confirm details. Verifications had been relaxed because of the pandemic but it's unclear whether that will continue in the upcoming FAFSA cycle, Draeger said.
Also, separately, some private, higher-cost colleges may require students to complete an even more detailed financial aid form, known as the CSS profile, that is administered by the College Board.