After Congress expanded eligibility for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid last June, higher education experts said officials should launch an informational outreach campaign to prevent confusion over the changes.
Federal officials and higher education institutions will no longer consider questions on the FAFSA asking whether applicants have registered with the Selective Service – a federal database of those eligible to be drafted into military service – or if they have been convicted on drug-related charges. Half a dozen experts in higher education policy said the updates to FAFSA will increase access to higher education but may lead to more confusion for new students registering for aid since the required eligibility questions will still appear on the form.
The 2021 FAFSA Simplification Act – signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in December 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 – mandated that the U.S. Department of Education decrease the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 36 and expanded student eligibility for federal Pell Grants.
“Twenty million students and their families are in the middle of what is likely the strangest first semester of college in a century,” then-Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement last September. “Almost everything has changed for students, except for one thing – students still have to answer 108 questions on the dreaded FAFSA form.”
The form, which will open Friday, will still include the two eligibility questions because the legislation came “too late” for the FAFSA to be changed, according to an ED release. ED officials issued a letter to higher education leaders in June advising student aid offices to disregard applicants’ answers about drug-related convictions and Selective Service registration while the questions remain on the form.
University spokesperson Crystal Nosal did not return a request for a comment on the changes to the form this year.
Jackie Dioses, a sophomore majoring in political science, said she wishes GW communicated the FAFSA changes to the student body so she could better prepare to complete the form. She said she has to gather a lot of family financial information to complete the form, making accurately completing it particularly “confusing.”
“This is probably something that should be made a little more clear,” Dioses said. “They should just send a quick email to keep us informed.”
She said the University should offer more advising and logistical assistance to students filling out financial documents like the FAFSA given the complexity of the questions and the amount of personal financial information students need to provide.
The Office of Student Financial Assistance’s website posts GW’s financial aid policies, a glossary of financial terminology and a guide to financial literacy. But the office’s Financial Education Resource List, which outlines resources for students to gather and submit financial information, was not functional and displayed an internal error message as of Sunday.
“We should definitely have some financial counseling, at least for those who don’t know the most or need extra help,” Dioses said.
Annabelle Manzo, a sophomore majoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said filling out the FAFSA is a “stressful experience” because officials do not offer enough support and financial literacy resources for students to complete the form.
“I am a first-generation college student, so that comes with a lot of anxiety around these sorts of things,” Manzo said. “There’s this fear of doing it wrong and then not being able to get aid, which is very important because we don’t have the finances for me to go to college without it.”
Experts in higher education said the changes made to the FAFSA helped separate a family’s financial and academic status from their student aid packages. But they said federal and university financial aid offices need to clarify, through announcements and individual communication, that students not registered with the Selective Service or who have had past drug-related convictions are still eligible for financial aid.
ED officials and experts said students with drug-related convictions and those not registered with the Selective Service may have been ineligible for financial aid in previous years.
Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said even though the questions shouldn’t affect application status, officials will still “flag” FAFSA applicants and flash an error message on their portal, stating they may be ineligible for aid with a drug conviction or without Selective Service registration.
“It’s reasonable to expect that some students could be confused,” Desjean said. “When they’re told one thing in one place and another thing in the other place, it’s hard to know which source of information you can trust.”
She said ED officials are planning an outreach program to email students who receive error messages regarding either of the two questions and requesting that students contact their financial aid office for guidance on the changes and how to move forward. Desjean said University officials should also individually reach out to students to clarify the process.
“They should be targeting the students whose student aid reports come with these flags on them,” she said. “They’re probably also including some kind of message that says, ‘You might have seen on your student aid report that you didn’t appear to be eligible. We’re happy to let you know that you are, in fact, eligible.’”
Tisa Silver Canady – the founder and president of the Maryland Center for Collegiate Wellness, a student financial aid professional and advocacy group – said eliminating questions from the FAFSA that are “not relevant” to a student’s financial position will help send more students to college with financial aid.
Canady said the FAFSA will likely have a greater effect on students who are applying for federal aid for the first time than students who are currently receiving federal financial aid – like Pell grants or Stafford loans – because those students have already demonstrated their eligibility.
“For students who are in the pipeline or thinking about going to school, this is something that could make things easier for them and also expand access to those who might have had that drug conviction,” Canady said.