By Kendall Kelly
For many high school seniors, they are flooded with paperwork. From writing personal essays for the Common Application portal, scholarship applications, letters of recommendation and submitting test scores, it all can feel foreign. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is typically no exception.
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is extensive, with many questions, from self-identification to specific tax information. Providing accurate information can seem daunting, as a lot of financial terminology can be unfamiliar to high schoolers. For so many students, the college decision-making process depends on the financial aid they receive.
However, new changes to the FAFSA form aim to simplify the process for students and families. The implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act began in 2021 and the final phase of changes will be seen in the 2024-2025 academic year. The FAFSA form now aims to be streamlined, reducing the number of questions from 108 to 40.
The FAFSA is an online form that determines eligibility for federal student aid like federal grants, work-study funds and loans. Universities can also use the information from the form to determine if a student is eligible for state and school aid. Many independent scholarships require proof that a student has filled out the form as well.
According to the National College Attainment Network, students who submit the FAFSA form are 84% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education. For those in the lowest socioeconomic quintile, it correlates with a 127% increase in immediate college enrollment.
Many students are unaware of the reasoning behind filling out FAFSA, it is just one of the many pieces of the college application process.
“I feel like it took me a long time to fill it out, trying to figure out everything,” Grayson Jarman, third-year biology major said.
Brenda Vaughn, outreach representative for Georgia Student Finance Committee, said she is excited to see the changes brought with the new form and how it expands aid for students.
“In the convoluted world of trying to figure out how to pay for college, it’s just one simple form, I’ll say one form. And over the years, they have been trying to make it easier, easier to complete, easier for people who need aid to get aid,” Vaughn said.
Madison Hamel, a senior entertainment and media studies student at the University of Georgia, filled out the FAFSA form prior to her first year of college. Since then, she has not filled it out again. With divorced parents, she found difficulty navigating questions regarding parental income and support.
“I didn’t really know whose information they wanted more, like my mom’s or my dad’s. That is the most difficult part I would say,” Hamel said.
For students with nontraditional circumstances, the prior FAFSA form may have been an obstacle in the goal of higher education. Now, the FAFSA defines a custodial parent as the individual who provides the most financial support for the student. Additionally, even if a student or student’s family do not file taxes, they are still eligible to fill out the FAFSA and receive aid.
“There are many reasons why families may not file tax returns…There are parents that don’t make that much money. And so then, there are parents who are already retired, that don’t have that income. There are parents in disability that don’t have that income,” Vaughn said.
In 2022, students left about $3.6 billion in Pell Grants on the table, simply by not filling out FAFSA, according to the National College Attainment Network. Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduate students displaying exceptional financial need. Unlike federal loans, they do not need to be repaid. The new Student Aid Index calculation aims to expand Pell eligibility.
The Student Aid Index calculation (SAI) replaces the previous Expected Family Contribution (EFC) score. The SAI determines what federal aid a student qualifies for. The formula conducts a need-based analysis, factoring in taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits received, such as unemployment or Social Security. A notable change is that the SAI no longer takes into account how many students a family has in college at that given point in time. A common misconception with the previous EFC score is that it equates with the amount a family is responsible for. Now, SAI is a calculation of the amount of need-based financial aid a student is eligible to receive.
In Vaughn’s role at Georgia Student Finance Commission, she serves 22 counties in the state of Georgia. She works alongside seven other representatives who aim to be a resource to students in the state. With their knowledge of the financial aid process, they present workshops and host FAFSA completion events for both private and public schools.
Financial literacy is oftentimes an obstacle in completing the form. For students and families, terms like net worth or assets may be difficult to understand and quantify. Undocumented students and homeless students face barriers with the FAFSA form. With non-permanent addresses and a lack of proper identification, FAFSA can feel impossible. However, there are local resources available to help complete it.
Vaughn encourages all students to file the FAFSA, especially for their first years in post-secondary education. With the expansion of Pell eligibility, aid may be available to more people than in previous years.
“Big thing, do not ever pay anybody to do this, to get any of this help. And if anyone needs help, feel free to come to GAFutures and look up the rep. Go to the financial aid office at any institution, even if it is not one you’re attending… Also, you can go to your guidance counselor at a high school to get some help…There are a lot of organizations around, that are to help with this process,” Vaughn said.
The FAFSA form will become available beginning Jan. 1. To be considered for federal aid, the form must be submitted before June 30. Deadlines for priority aid vary in each state.
Kendall Kelly is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.