Down to the Wire: Questions and Concerns Loom Over New FAFSA

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Anxiety, tension, stress, and nervousness are the current emotions many financial aid professionals are feeling day-to-day as the launch of the 2024-25 FAFSA inches closer. By the end of this month, Federal Student Aid (FSA) will launch the 2024-25 FAFSA, which comes with major changes to the federal methodology and processes, leaving aid offices in limbo about training, vendors, staffing shortages, burnout, and more. 

For Alex DeLonis, FAAC®, associate dean for enrollment management and director of financial aid at Wabash College, the general mood in his office is anxiety. 

“The aid administrators I’ve talked to are still very nervous about whether the Department of Education (ED) will be able to hold to the timeline we have been given and if everything will go smoothly once we go live with processing,” DeLonis said. “It’s almost like we are still bracing ourselves for the next set of twists and turns.”

Patti Kohler, FAAC®, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University, said she senses trepidation among her colleagues. However, she added that she also feels a desire to get the new FAFSA process “moving along.”

“Now that we know when we’ll have information to work with, we are anxious to dive in,” Kohler said. 

FSA announced in November that the 2024-25 FAFSA would launch by December 31, meeting the statutory requirement that the form must be available by January 1, 2024. However, aid offices are still concerned with the timeline of the launch, specifically due to the fact that institutions will not immediately begin receiving Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs). ED said those will come by the end of January 2024. 

Financial aid professionals have expressed many concerns with a number of logistical issues, such as how to train staff on new guidance and onboard new financial aid professionals, how to communicate these changes not just with students and families, but their own campus officials, and much more.

Kohler added that due to the magnitude of changes from FAFSA simplification and subsequent processes that need to be addressed, aid offices are feeling on edge. 

“Our students are the ones that will be affected the most,” Kohler said. “Aid offers cannot go out the door until the processes are available and tested, and we cannot trigger these activities until the final FAFSA is available and records are sent to schools.”

DeLonis shared that sentiment, saying his biggest concern is getting everything done with a compressed time frame. 

“The thought of not receiving ISIRs [sooner] seems unreal,” DeLonis said. “This means we likely won’t be able to get aid offers out until late February or early March. Unfortunately, I think the burden will fall on already short-staffed aid offices to help families work through the confusion.”

The same is true for Beck Gusler, director of financial aid compliance at Wentworth Institute of Technology, who said that her biggest concern is planning for ISIR delays, and how to address student and parent questions.

“We’re all doing our best to prepare, but it’s like packing your clothes for a vacation when you don’t know the destination,” Gusler said. “Meanwhile, students and families are understandably nervous and are asking us a lot of questions about the new FAFSA and when they can complete it.”

Kim Showman, director of financial aid at Denison University, said that while she anticipated FSA would launch the new FAFSA by the end of December, she didn’t expect for ISIRs to be delayed. The delayed launch date, coupled with the wait for ISIRs to arrive, leaves a tight window for her office to complete its work before the school releases regular admissions decisions in mid-March — and that’s assuming everything works smoothly, she said. 

However, the delay with ISIRs is not an issue for all institutions, said Jaime Missimer, ​director of financial aid at Pearl River Community College. She noted her aid office processes and packages aid offers later than other institutions, typically in April each year.

Missimer noted that one of her main concerns is that the 2024-25 FAFSA may be more challenging for some students and parents who may lack technology skills — specifically due to confusion around consent and contributor invitations, since students need to have personal information to invite their parents to complete the FAFSA.

“We frequently encounter parents who have trouble with creating an FSA ID or cannot create one because they are undocumented,” Missimer said. “I anticipate that undocumented parents may be very hesitant to create an FSA ID to complete the FAFSA. We also have seen parents who do not want to share any of their information with students to complete the FAFSA, so the fact that the student will need each contributor’s name, Social Security number, date of birth, and email address, is very concerning and I expect challenges with that as well.”

DeLonis shared the sentiment, noting that there may be difficulties for students and parents completing the FAFSA due to the new identity verification process for contributors with no Social Security numbers. He adds that he hopes the process doesn’t drive more families to complete the paper FAFSA, or walk away from the process altogether.

During FSA’s 2023 virtual training conference, officials shared that FSA is implementing an update to allow users that don't have Social Security numbers to create an FSA ID. 

Outreach to students and families

Logistics and timing aside, NASFAA members have also said they worry about how they — and ED officials — will communicate the upcoming FAFSA changes to students and families. 

DeLonis, for example, stressed that FSA needs to make it clear to students and families of what a realistic timeline could look like after they complete the FAFSA, since aid offices will be unable to begin their work until they start receiving ISIRs. 

“It is very normal for a family to submit their FAFSA, and then pick up the phone and call us,” DeLonis said. “We can usually have some kind of information about next steps for them in less than a week. Now, it could be over a month before we actually receive their data.”

And as Missimer noted, some students and parents may struggle to complete the new form, in which case there will need to be “serious outreach” to both prospective and current students to explain the changes with the new FAFSA and walk them through the new process.

Gusler stressed that applicants and families with concerns about the FAFSA, or in complicated family situations, should try to reach out to their financial aid offices sooner rather than later for help. 

“My largest concerns are how much of the process is being thrown onto schools to handle, coupled with some of the simplified questions being much more difficult for our families and students,” Gusler said. “In addition to all the unknowns around where and when data will be housed in our student systems, it will create a large volume of work for financial aid offices in a more condensed time frame.”

NASFAA has also stressed to the department the importance of comprehensive communication that relays realistic time frames and next steps to students, and the need to increase the availability of customer support to both students and financial aid offices. 

“ED must include in its communications with applicants when they submit the FAFSA that, while their FAFSA submission was successful, institutions may not have this information until the end of January,” NASFAA wrote in a December 12, 2023 letter to ED. “As institutions gear up to begin importing ISIRs and making financial aid offers, they cannot afford to spare already limited and overworked staff to answer questions from applicants about why their FAFSA data hasn’t reached the school.”

Onboarding and training staff

To be able to navigate the many changes FAFSA simplification will bring and appropriately counsel students and families, it’s crucial that aid offices are properly trained and stay up to date on relevant guidance. 

DeLonis said his entire team has been to numerous conferences and watched countless webinars to get ready for FAFSA simplification. His office has also used NASFAA’s Student Aid Index (SAI) modeling tool, which he said helped his office improve its packaging methodology for the upcoming year.

Showman, of Denison University, noted that her team has been taking advantage of webinars, local in-person trainings, and working through current early decision applicants to get more practice in understanding how the new SAI formula works. Denison uses the College Board CSS profile for institutional aid and has used it to estimate federal Pell Grants amounts and SAI. Showman added that early decision applicants will still be required to complete the FAFSA once it is available. 

“I hope making this a priority until we begin receiving ISIRs will alleviate some of the angst of the unknown, especially given the time crunch we will be facing,” Showman said. “Supporting and reminding each other to stay focused on today has been helpful for us.”

The aid office at Western Governors University, however, is atypical, in that it’s large and onboards three to eight staff members monthly, Kohler said. The frequent onboarding means she needs to train staff this upcoming spring not only on the 2023-24 EFC methodology, but also on the 2024-25 SAI methodology. Kohler said these changes concern her that employees won’t be able to gain the information as quickly. 

Kohler noted that her aid office has an action item list of 429 items that need to be reviewed, which includes items for training, project management, data and reporting, change management, policy updates, student and institutional communications, and more. She said she expects the list will grow as her office receives finalized information from its software providers to address its technical needs.

“I do, however, have complete confidence in our financial aid community to get this done for our students,” Kohler said. 

Darcy Johnson, FAAC®, assistant director of compliance at Washburn University of Topeka, added that with all these changes come concerns with institutions having up-to-date policies and procedures. Additionally, staffing shortages in aid offices can create more difficulties. In 2022, a NASFAA survey found that 56% of aid offices said they are concerned about their ability to adequately serve students with current staffing levels.   

“In talking with a lot of my colleagues across the country, policies and procedures are one of those things that sometimes end up on the bottom of the to-do list as far as getting them updated,” Johnson said. “If a school is understaffed, that just makes it more difficult trying to balance getting financial aid packaged and out to students and making sure that everything is up to date.”

Preparing for the launch

Despite the time crunch and challenges that lie ahead, financial aid offices are taking steps to prepare for the launch of the FAFSA. 

Kohler stressed that institutions and aid offices should put together a project plan for the FAFSA launch, if they haven’t already, and noted that Western Governors University has adopted a project manager, change manager, and process engineer to review her institution’s needs.  

“This is a significant institutional change, not just a change for the financial aid office,” Kohler said. “It requires attention at the enterprise level, and support from the president’s level to all others. Awareness of the change is key in the success of the launch of the new FAFSA.”

At Wabash College, DeLonis said the school was able to make an institutional application for early decision applicants to complete so students could receive an early estimate of their SAI, despite the delayed release of the FAFSA. 

Meanwhile, Gusler said Wentworth Institute of Technology has focused on outreach by sending postcards and emails to parents and students with spouses informing them that they may need a new FSA ID and how to apply. Wentworth also posted a Q&A about FAFSA simplification on its website, and the aid office is planning to offer more workshops and one-on-one meetings for students to help make sure they file their FAFSA before state deadlines, she said.

The aid office at Washburn University of Topeka is spending time making sure that the campus community and high school counselors are aware of the changes that are coming, Johnson said, while Mississippi’s state college completion group, Get2College, is conducting trainings on campuses across the state for employees on the updates to the FAFSA and how to help students complete the new application, Missimer shared.

Community support

DeLonis said that while the long road to finding out when the 2024-25 FAFSA will launch has been frustrating for him and his colleagues, the time has brought the financial aid community closer together. 

Currently, aid offices have access to member-submitted FAFSA simplification communication samples, along with other FAFSA simplification tools and resources through NASFAA, as well as trainings and webinars provided by ED. 

“Financial aid administrators have always been a supportive group, but now we need each other more than ever,” DeLonis said. “It has been great to see the sharing of resources, information and data sharing, and the innovation from the community to overcome these challenges.”

 

Publication Date: 12/18/2023


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