With the recent launch of the revamped federal application to receive aid for college, financial aid counselors are urging college hopefuls in Texas to fill out the form as soon as possible to up the odds of getting more money — though they will have to wait a few months before they learn how much aid they'll get.
The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the biggest update to the form in decades. Mandated by Congress in 2020, the changes are expected to streamline the application to make college accessible for more families. Students will see fewer questions and a different formula used to award need-based aid.
Completing the application has been a pain point for Texas families. The form came three months late, on Dec. 30, because the U.S. Education Department needed more time to roll out changes. In a weeklong, rocky “soft launch,” the form was only accessible for intermittent periods of time, with a waiting room to manage capacity. As of Jan. 8, the form has been available 24 hours a day.
FAFSA is the single best way to get assistance paying for college because it opens the door for federal, state and school grants and scholarships. The Texas high school class of 2022 missed out on $390 million in Pell Grant money by not completing the FAFSA.
Here’s what’s changing with FAFSA and what the updates mean for Texas students and their families.
Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible
Because the changes to the new form were released late, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board pushed its own priority deadline for financial aid applications from Jan. 15 to Mar. 15.
But students should still fill out the form as early as they can so financial aid counselors can help them resolve any hitches with the new system.
More importantly, many schools provide their own award packages to students on a first-come, first-serve basis. While a student may qualify for federal aid, a school’s pot of money to subsidize tuition can tap out faster, depending on how much it set aside for financial assistance and how generous the school wants to be with each student’s aid package.
That means the sooner you submit the FAFSA, the better your chances are at getting sizable award packages, said Sara Urquidez, the executive director of Academic Success Program, a college access center in Dallas, Houston and College Station.
"It's really important to understand that some colleges in the state do run out of like state aid," Urquidez said. "So we want our students to be at the front of the line."
The federal government will start sending information from completed FAFSAs to colleges in early March, meaning that's the earliest schools can start putting together financial aid packages for applicants. Federal officials had previously planned to send out FAFSA data to schools in late January.
The new FAFSA is shorter
The new FAFSA is supposed to be easier for families to complete. The number of questions has dropped from 108 to about 36, and applicants can skip as many as 26 questions. The federal government says it takes most people less than an hour to fill out the form.
Members of Congress ordered the changes to the financial aid application after complaining the old version was unduly complicated and acted as a barrier to college.
The amount of financial aid students receive could change
The funding formula, which determines how much federal financial aid students are eligible to receive, has also gotten some updates, too. While the changes expand eligibility for some benefits, they’re also expected to result in less aid for some applicants.
The new formula extends eligibility for the Pell Grant, a subsidy that goes to the lowest-income families and doesn’t have to be paid back. Eligibility will now be calculated based on family size and income.
In Texas, about 51,000 new students will now qualify for the Pell Grant and about 133,000 Pell recipients will get the maximum amount of $7,395 per year under the grant, according to data from the U.S. Education Department.
For students with divorced or separated parents, aid will be determined based on the parent who provides the most financial support, instead of the parent the student lives with.
Small businesses and family farms, previously exempt from the formula, will now be counted to determine a family’s financial situation. That could mean students in rural communities could see less aid. A study from the Iowa College Student Aid Commission estimated a typical family with a small business or farm could be expected to pay out of pocket five times the amount they had in previous years.
Rural students already attend college at lower rates than their urban and suburban peers. Experts are worried this new formula will make rural students even less inclined to pursue a college degree.
In addition, families with more than one child enrolled in college at the same time will no longer get a break and qualify for more aid, a benefit that was known as the “sibling discount.” This will hit middle-class families the hardest, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institute.
In Texas, completing the FAFSA is mandatory
High school seniors in Texas must fill out the FAFSA, the Texas Application for State Financial Aid or sign an opt-out form to graduate.
This is the third academic year Texas is mandating the completion of financial aid applications. Texas was the second state to institute such a requirement in 2019, after Louisiana. Research suggests that students who file the federal form are more likely to attend college.
Due to the FAFSA delays, Texas high school counselors have a shortened window of time to get every student to fill out a form before graduation. That’s added pressure, as they also try to understand the changes in the new system.
In May, counselors at San Angelo ISD will go into “opt-out form mode,” where they track down students who have not completed any form to have them formally opt out.
“It’s just one more thing [counselors] have to crunch down on in a semester. And spring semesters are always the busiest.” Rebecca Cline, the director of counseling at San Angelo ISD in West Texas, said. “But we also know it's not forever.”
What should I do if my parents don't have a Social Security number?
A temporary glitch in the online FAFSA is preventing parents without a Social Security number from adding their financial information. Affected students cannot complete the form at this time.
The federal government has been aware of this glitch since at least Jan. 4. Students can expect the error to a permanent fix by the "first half" of March.
"We know that this is an important need. It's something we've been working to correct," said Richard Cordray, the head of the Education Department's Federal Student Aid.
There is a temporary workaround for applicants up against pressing state or school deadlines. Students can follow a nine-step process to submit an incomplete FAFSA online without a parent’s signature. Doing so will get students a confirmation email, which they can share with financial aid providers to show proof of submission.
Applicants who use this workaround will still need to make corrections to their form once a permanent fix is made. Returning to the form to make corrections will be critical: a missing parent signature will eventually result in a rejected FAFSA.
There is a paper form
But the paper copy may not be the best option: Paper forms will be processed after online applications, so students risk putting themselves last in line. It's also easier to make mistakes with the paper version.
If you mail in a paper FAFSA, you can and should still fill out the online version. The federal government will use the online version to make financial aid calculations and treat the paper copy like a duplicate submission.
Where to get FAFSA help
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a checklist of the documents families will need to have on hand to fill out the FAFSA.
College access nonprofit uAspire and the Federal Student Aid office each host webinars where they walk students and families through the financial aid form. Find upcoming webinars here.
Applicants can call the national FAFSA hotline at (800) 433-3243. They can also use the "Live Help" function on the FAFSA website, which starts a chat session with a customer service representative.
Students should look out for FAFSA workshops led by their local high schools, college access centers and college financial aid offices. Applicants in need of one-on-one assistance should reach out to their high school counselor or their college's financial aid office.
The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.