(U.S. Department of Education)

Generations of students and parents have groaned over a chore essential for those who need assistance in paying for college: filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Some get stuck on what can be a complicated sequence of questions. Others miss deadlines or skip the process entirely.


The new app. (Education Department)

Now, the government is taking a step meant to ease, if not eliminate, the pain of completing what is known as FAFSA. This week, it launched the first official mobile app to guide families through a task that is necessary for students seeking federal Pell Grants and most other forms of aid. The app, called myStudentAid, can be downloaded to Apple and Android cellphones and can be used now, with a few caveats.

Students and parents can use this “beta version” to fill out a first-time 2018-2019 FAFSA, for the school year about to start, or check their student loan history. But they can’t yet use the app to correct a previously filed FAFSA, renew an application or access family tax data from the Internal Revenue Service. For now, in those situations, students must go online to fafsa.gov. That website, too, has been redesigned to make it more user-friendly.

The caveats are expected to disappear Oct. 1, when the government makes the 2019-2020 FAFSA available through a fuller version of the mobile app. The 2019-2020 form is what high school seniors will need to complete for financial aid if they plan to go college in fall 2019.

The Office of Federal Student Aid in the Education Department processes about 20 million FAFSAs a year. But experts say many students who could and should file don’t, which needlessly narrows college options. About two-thirds of graduating high school seniors completed a FAFSA in 2017, the government estimates. With more than 100 congressionally mandated questions on income, assets, family size, siblings in college and other variables, the FAFSA enables the government to calculate the expected family contribution for a student’s college expenses. The results of the analysis determine eligibility for Pell Grants of up to $6,095 a year.

Colleges rely on the federal number-crunching to assess financial need, although many schools also ask for more detailed information in a separate form available through the nonprofit College Board. That form is called the CSS Profile.

Federal officials said they hope the mobile technology will broaden access to aid, enabling students and parents to fill out the FAFSA even if they don’t have a desktop computer at home. The tool is designed so that students can start answering questions on their own phones, with parents able to continue the process, as needed, on a separate device (phone or desktop). To allay concerns about data security, the tool is designed so that none of the information entered through a phone will stay on that device.

As with previous desktop versions, the mobile tool uses “skip logic” to help students bypass questions that don’t apply to them. (For example, certain questions apply only to those who are financially dependent on their parents.)


(Education Department)

The mobile tool introduces phrases meant to cheer on students to reach the finish line, such as “You’ve completed a milestone!” and “You’re a Rock Star!” It also aims to be more intuitive. Key questions can be answered with the touch of a thumb. One introductory screen asks: “Tell us who you are.” There are three clear buttons: “I am the Parent,” “I am the Student” and “I am a Preparer.”

Student aid officials say the mobile app is one in a series of steps planned to improve customer service.

“The federal financial aid process has been complex, fragmented and difficult for students and their families to navigate and understand,” the office said in a statement Wednesday. “Numerous systems, vendors, processes and interfaces across multiple brands and user experiences often result in a poor customer experience, which can confuse borrowers and lead to higher loan delinquency and default rates.”

The goal, the office said, is “meeting students and families where they are and securely providing them the information they need when they need it.”