FSA Officials Focus on FAFSA Simplification, Regulatory Updates at 2023 Training Conference

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Federal Student Aid (FSA) on Tuesday kicked off its 2023 virtual training conference, a four-day event highlighting initiatives and updates from FSA, including FAFSA simplification and the December launch of the 2024-25 FAFSA, federal regulations, changes to FSA’s website, and more. 

Over 17,600 participants registered to attend this year’s conference, which led to technical issues for registrants accessing the conference’s platform. Online, FSA warned that the conference platform may take longer than usual to load. Additionally, FSA announced that due to technical issues, it will show the StudentAid.gov Walkthrough, Updates, and Upcoming Attractions (BO16) session again on Wednesday, November 29, from 3:20-4 p.m. ET with a Q&A. 

FSA Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray gave opening remarks on Tuesday morning, outlining FSA’s current initiatives. He touched on several changes happening with FAFSA simplification this year, including the implementation of the Student Aid Index (SAI), the 2024-25 FAFSA form, which will go live by December 31, and the direct transfer of IRS tax information in the new FAFSA, among other changes. 

He added that FAFSA simplification is a “huge undertaking” involving massive technological changes, which includes an overhaul of FSA’s 47-year-old legacy computer processing system. 

“Overall, the streamlined FAFSA form is expected to lead to increased completion rates, and improved college access and affordability for students,” Cordray said. “Throughout, we remain determined to deliver on our message, ‘Better FAFSA. Better Future.’ So when the new FAFSA becomes publicly available, please share your experiences with us.”

Cordray also touched on the return of student loan repayment, which resumed this fall after a three-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initiatives the department has implemented include a new income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, the Saving on Valuable Education (SAVE) plan, and the Fresh Start initiative, which would enable defaulted borrowers to reenter repayment in good standing. Already, over 5.5 million student loan borrowers have been enrolled in the SAVE repayment plan, Cordray said.  

There have also been improvements to federal student loan servicing, Cordray said, noting the department’s new framework to hold student loan servicers accountable, as well as new contracts with five loan servicers. 

Cordray added that FSA will be adding “enhancements” to the FSA Partner Connect website next month, including a redesigned application for approval to participate in FSA’s financial assistance programs. Additionally, he said FSA will expand the school profile section with new case management tools, an electronic third-party service or inquiry form, and a new school third-party service or profile section.

“FSA works constantly to improve customer service and outcomes for students and borrowers,” Cordray said. “We also will strengthen engagement and accountability for schools, increase our workforce and workplace capabilities and boost our operational efficiency. We owe these things to our customers, to you, and to ourselves.”

During a breakout session on the StudentAid.gov website, FSA presenters went over updates from the past year, such as the release of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Help Tool — which lets borrowers use eSignature and eSubmission — the SAVE repayment plan, the updated FSA Estimator, and more. 

The session also included a walkthrough of the PSLF Help Tool and how to apply for an IDR plan, along with upcoming changes to the StudentAid.gov website. Josie Nixon, program analyst for FSA’s Student Experience and Aid Delivery, said that along with the launch of the 2024-25 FAFSA in December, FSA is implementing an update to allow users that don't have Social Security numbers to create an FSA ID. That way, users will be able to access the StudentAid.gov website and complete or contribute to a FAFSA form.

Nixon added that FSA will be implementing additional IDR regulatory changes next summer related to the SAVE repayment plan, and implementing the first phase of specialty loan servicing program, which handles PSLF, TEPSLF, TPD, and TEACH programs. The FSA ID account recovery process will also be automated, Nixon said. 

She noted that currently, if a user can’t remember their FSA ID or login information for the StudentAid.gov website, they must contact FSA’s helpdesk and follow a manual process to regain access to their account. With the new automation, users will be able to recover their login on their own, which Nixon says will shorten the process from one to three days down to 15 minutes. 

During the federal update session, officials covered the latest news and updates on FAFSA simplification, new guidance, and the negotiated rulemaking process.

To kick things off, officials dug into the implementation planning process for the 2024-25 FAFSA, which ED said due to the complex nature of the FUTURE Act would have a three-step phase deployment. 

First, per ED’s most recent guidance, the form will be available for students and families to complete and submit by December 31. Second, by the end of January 2024 schools and state higher education agencies will begin to receive Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) and students will be able to make corrections. In the following weeks, institutions will be able to make corrections. The third portion of the deployment concerns the 2025-26 FAFSA form, which will contain links to export FAFSA information directly to certain state financial aid applications and the ability for unpaid preparers to complete a FAFSA form on behalf of students.

In detailing the roadmap ahead, officials underscored the importance of collaboration and that they’d work across the higher education community to help with the FAFSA rollout. Specifically, ED said they would provide opportunities for Q&As and will work to reduce administrative burden. According to the presentation, this could include verification waiver flexibility.

During the presentation ED also urged listeners to utilize its FAFSA Simplification web page for the updated guidance and new resources including webinars, guides, and fact sheets. ED also said that an upcoming electronic announcement would provide details on another webinar series that will take place from January through March of 2024. 

The next portion of the presentation dug into new guidance issued throughout the year, including the following Dear Colleague Letters:

ED then went through its ongoing negotiated rulemaking process with their committee work that began back in 2021 and has continued through 2023. 

That committee work included the Affordability and Student Loans Committee, which began work in 2021 with final regulations taking effect July 1, 2023. Topics during this session included: total and permanent disability discharge; eliminating interest capitalization for nonstatutory capitalization events; false certification discharge; Pell Grant eligibility for Prison Education Programs; income-driven repayment; Public Service Loan Forgiveness; borrower defense; closed school discharge; and predispute arbitration. 

Another committee, the Institutional Eligibility and Accountability Committee, also published all of its final rules with an effective date of July 1, 2023 for 90/10, and change in ownership. The remaining topics, gainful employment, financial value transparency, ability to benefit, financial responsibility, and administrative capability and certification procedures take effect July 1, 2024. 

The most recent committee is still in the process of working through drafted regulatory text seeking to address how the administration can implement student loan debt cancellation. Their next meeting is slated for December.

NASFAA will cover several sessions of the FSA virtual training conference in the next few days. Additionally, we’ll have a new episode of “Off The Cuff” out soon debriefing this conference. Stay tuned to Today’s News for more updates.

 

Publication Date: 11/29/2023


Peter G | 12/4/2023 4:18:34 AM

I think it was poor, but I don't know that the fact that it was recorded was the issue. Public television, and many others, have known for decades how to do informative, even engaging, recorded content well.

Three years in ED has, for whatever reason, not figured out how to do this format well.

The scheduling is poor, they for whatever reason chose not to make use of their training staff to train, the platform is deficient in many ways, etc.

The one positive I will say is that they were relatively efficient in re-posting the pre-recorded "live" events over to "on demand." Small victories, I guess, but it was something.

David S | 11/29/2023 5:37:30 PM

As the world has moved onto a new normal (I'm not inclined to say "post-COVID," as it's absolutely still out there, but I don't want to digress), it's time to acknowledge that virtual conferences are of very little use. They are, as Jeff said, scripted, might be live but might as well be pre-recorded, and not at all interactive. No meeting up with colleagues over lunch or in the bar afterwards to brainstorm what was discussed at sessions earlier that day. But as ED remains drastically understaffed and underfunded (just like our offices are), the cost of streaming videos of staff reading along to PowerPoint slides is a lot less than the cost of them flying scores of them to Orlando, paying for their meals and accommodations, and renting out the conference space at the Swan and the Dolphin. So I'm afraid this delivery method is going nowhere.

And it's free for us (conference itself was always free, but no costs for travel or hotels or meals or cabs), so whatever they offer, more people can partake in it (of course, that turns out to be a problem with bandwidth). But compared, say, to the NASFAA conference, maybe you get what you pay for (shoulder shrug emoji).

Kyle R | 11/29/2023 11:5:03 AM

I agree with Jeff. What a waste. Let's figure out a way to file a claim to get our time back.

Jeff A | 11/29/2023 10:0:44 AM

if i had to take out loans for this, i would file a BDR claim.

It is not a conference (consultation or discussion), nor is it training. It is a scripted, pre-recorded broadcast.

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