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When the U.S. Department of Education rolled out the "Better FAFSA" at the end of last year, the intent was to make the Free Application for Federal Student Aid a simpler process for the millions of college students hoping for financial help for the 2024-25 school year.

But so far, the new FAFSA has created a series of headaches for students, their families and higher education institutions across the country after ongoing technical glitches and delays. And time is running out: Most college decisions come out imminently in late March, with students needing to commit in a month, around May 1.

That's a $10,000 to $50,000 choice to make — on tuition alone, depending on public vs. private and in-state vs. out-of-state — with many students still unclear about their financial plan for the year, as FAFSA applications also allow students to access state and institutional aid.

"There's been nothing simple about the FAFSA Simplification Act," said Kim Frisch, vice president for enrollment management at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. "All around: It is problematic."

If you're one of the many dealing with the frustrations from this new system, here is some help on how to persist through the process until you feel ready to head into the next school year with monetary confidence.

A Better FAFSA

These changes are the first for the FAFSA program in more than 40 years, with Congress originally passing the FAFSA Simplification Act in December 2020. Despite challenges this year, university financial aid staffers believe the new FAFSA will ultimately be an essential tool for students.

FAFSA forms previously had 108 questions and were only available in English or Spanish. With the new FAFSA application, some students might have as few as 18 questions while others might have as many as 49, depending on their family situation. The application is now available in the 11 most common languages spoken in the country. Students can also now list up to 20 colleges on their applications, up from 10.

Eligibility for federal Pell Grants, which do not require repaying, has also expanded to more students. Pell Grants are for undergraduate students who "display exceptional financial need," according to the Department of Education, with the maximum amount for the current school year set at $7,395.

"Once we can get past this year, it really is going to be easier for most families and students to complete," said Amanda Burgess, director of financial aid for Minneapolis-based Augsburg University.

Why the delay?

FAFSA applications are typically available in October, but with the Department of Education delays, the new FAFSA applications were two months behind that typical deadline. So that's the first reason why students will receive financial offers much later than normal and thus have less time to make decisions.

Even just in Minnesota, this will inconvenience tens of thousands of people, and that's just incoming freshmen alone. For the 2022-23 school year, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) counted 73,074 eligible high school seniors, with 48% completing a FAFSA application. For the 2021-22 school year, Minnesota students received approximately $2.6 billion in financial aid, OHE reported.

Some technical issues also prevented students from being able to complete, submit or revise their applications. When the application portal first launched, it wasn't available 24/7. Plus at first, the Department of Education was using three-year-old financial tables to gauge college affordability, which potentially limited the amount of aid a student could receive. But throughout the process, the department was tracking issues like these and trying to make updates and fixes.

Because that traditional May 1 deadline is looking less feasible by the day, many schools have extended that deadline, including the University of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and Gustavus Adolphus.

As of March 12, colleges had not yet received any FAFSA information from the federal government but were expecting it could start to arrive in a matter of days. The Department of Education previously said schools would have info in late January.

Pam Engebretson, director of financial aid and scholarships for Century College in White Bear Lake — a two-year community and technical college that's part of the Minnesota State system — said she is expecting the Department of Education "to be able to work through the backlog" of applications."

What should you do?

In the meantime, financial aid staffers encouraged students to learn the details of the new system, stay in contact with their colleges and not let the process intimidate them.

Stay in touch

In reaction to challenges with the new FAFSA program, some colleges are becoming more proactive about communicating with students.

"We made a commitment to be a source of information for students," said Susan Ant, director of financial aid and scholarships for Bloomington-based Normandale Community College. "If you get stuck, don't stop. Come and see us instead."

Ant said for the students who have made it through the new process, they have deemed it "easier and faster." So persistence is key.

"Our staff is working directly with students. My biggest advice would be to stay in contact with your school," Burgess said. "This particular year has been a tough transition year."

Learn new terms

The new FAFSA forms introduce the term "contributor," which refers to anyone — your spouse, your biological or adoptive parents, a parent's spouse — whom the app asks to provide information, including consent and approval to have federal tax information transferred directly to the FAFSA application.

"It's a lot of new information. It can be a little bit confusing," said Elizabeth Brooks, director of financial aid for St. Cloud State University.

Engebretson said being able to automatically transfer tax information should be a benefit to most applicants, as that is "where families usually got stuck." To import IRS information previously, applicants had to match the exact address used on their tax returns. Even the slightest variation such as using Street vs. St. could prevent students from completing the process.

Some students faced other challenges.

Applicants who were unable to provide Social Security numbers for parents — because they lived abroad and weren't U.S. citizens or were undocumented, for example — were initially not able to complete FAFSA forms. At the beginning of March, the Department of Education released instructions for creating a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID for anyone without a Social Security number.

"I think we have a much larger population of students whose parents don't necessarily have Social Security numbers," Brooks said.

Consider financial changes

Families should closely study financial changes to the FAFSA formula used to calculate a student's financial aid eligibility. In some cases, it could mean families will be facing a larger bill.

FAFSA previously offered a discount for families with multiple students in college, but that is no longer the case. Cozy Wittman — who leads education and partnerships for St. Paul-based College Inside Track — said families might want to reach out directly to schools to see if the institutions are able to offer discounts in those cases.

"At the price of college today, families can use all the help that they can get," said Wittman, whose organization works with families trying to select a school.

The application will no longer have exemptions for owners of family farms and small-business owners by July 1. The assets from those businesses formerly was a factor in the calculation of student aid, and there is concern this could result in the loss of financial aid eligibility for some students.

A proposal to restore those exemptions is under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We're going to have fewer and fewer families qualifying for [financial] need," Wittman said. "People are very anxious."

Don't give up

If you have already filled out your application but still haven't heard a response, just try to be patient and communicate with your school and the Department of Education regularly so everyone knows you're on top of it. If you haven't managed to finish the application, there's still time.

"Don't get discouraged. Now is the time to get that FAFSA in if they haven't already done it," said Wendy Robinson, assistant commissioner of the OHE. "It does take less time to fill out."

Robinson said many of the problems plaguing FAFSA this year are specific to rolling out the new program and won't persist beyond this season.

"I think this year is truly an anomaly," Robinson said.