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Education Dept. may miss Oct. 1 deadline for redesigned FAFSA form

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The Education Department may miss the Oct. 1 deadline for launching its redesigned Free Application for Federal Student Aid, raising the ire of advocates who say a delay could be detrimental to students from lower-income households.

Speaking at a National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference Tuesday, a senior department official said the agency is working hard to carry out a bipartisan law simplifying and easing requirements for the FAFSA form but could not commit to the form’s traditional launch date.

“We are, as I said, deep in the thick of it,” Melanie Storey, director of policy implementation and oversight at Federal Student Aid, told conference attendees Tuesday. “But right now ... we’re not committing to a launch date this fall. We are moving toward it as aggressively as we can. But I can assure you that we will launch in the fourth quarter of 2023.”

Storey said the department wants to be “confident that we deliver a stable and secure FAFSA” and pledged to keep financial aid officers abreast of the rollout date.

But the assurances are being met with disappointment from college access and aid groups, which have grown frustrated with delays in one of the most significant changes to how students apply for federal financial aid.

“A FAFSA delay is a step backward for students and families,” said Justin Draeger, president of NASFAA. “A number of colleges and universities begin sending out financial aid offers in November and December to get families the information they need to make college-going decisions as soon as possible.”

Because the formula behind the FAFSA is also changing, he said, many schools will be reluctant to provide estimates of institutional financial aid packages before the redesign is completed.

The Education Department was supposed to wrap up changes to the FAFSA in time for the 2023-24 application cycle, but the agency said in June 2021 that it needed to push the rollout back by a year. It moved toward a phased implementation of the changes and said some overhauls would arrive earlier than scheduled.

On Tuesday, Education Department spokesman Roy Loewenstein said the Office of Federal Student Aid is “moving full speed ahead” to develop the new FAFSA form and processing system in time to launch later this year.

“The Department continues to prioritize ensuring that the millions of students who use the form have a better, simpler experience that will help them apply for aid and get a college education,” Loewenstein said.

The Education Department said that, given the unprecedented complexity of the new form, the agency will specify an exact launch date for the final FAFSA form at a later time.

It has been nearly three years since Congress approved a host of reforms to the FAFSA in a 2020 government funding bill, helping Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) realize a longtime policy goal before his retirement.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers agreed to reduce the number of questions on the aid application from 108 to 36 and limit the requirements for students experiencing homelessness and those formerly in foster care to receive financial assistance. They also decided to shield more of the money that working students earn from the formula used to determine aid.

The changes also ensured that more families with substantial financial need receive additional aid. Lawmakers said the revisions could enable an additional 1.7 million students to soon qualify for the maximum award each year and make an additional 555,000 newly eligible for aid.

Meanwhile, the department is also implementing another law that Congress passed in 2019, dubbed the FUTURE Act, that would make it easier for the agency and the Internal Revenue Service to share taxpayer data so students can speed through the aid application and reduce the need for verification of income. All of the FAFSA changes are slated to land in the fall.

Advocacy groups grew concerned late last year that the department had not given a firm commitment to the launch date for the revamped FAFSA form. NASFAA and the National College Attainment Network wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Susan Rice, the president’s chief domestic policy adviser, in December seeking assurances.

NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook said Tuesday that school counselors, state aid administrators and college advisers “need a clear release date that allows them to adjust their planning for the already significant changes ahead.”

Cook and other advocates note that the FAFSA is critical for federal and state aid, as many states rely on the form to dole out their financial aid funds. A number of state grant programs have priority deadlines as early as the start of February, so the later the FAFSA opens the less time students will have to apply on time, said Eddy Conroy, a senior adviser for education policy at liberal think tank New America.

Getting thousands of award notices out the door takes a lot of work, Conroy said, and the later colleges get students’ financial aid information, the less time there is to finalize award notices, so students have accurate information to work with as they make decisions.

“My biggest concern is for students, especially marginalized and first-generation students, who might need help completing their FAFSA,” Conroy said. “Schools and financial aid offices have built their timelines on college advising and FAFSA help around an October 1 release date. Delays mean less time to help the students who need the most support.”