- The U.S. Department of Education has launched the updated Free Application for Federal Student Aid in a limited capacity, though technical difficulties and long wait times have marred the much-awaited reveal.
- The department soft-launched the FAFSA Dec. 30, two days before its congressionally mandated deadline. But the application has only been available during short intervals, and the agency doesn't plan to send applicant data to colleges until later this month.
- "We uncovered some minor issues affecting users at various points in the application process, which is to be expected with the launch of a major new website," the Education Department said in a statement Sunday. The agency plans to pause access to the application repeatedly during the soft launch to address technical issues.
Congress passed legislation in late 2020 requiring the Education Department to simplify the FAFSA. The previous form had more than 100 questions and was notoriously difficult for students and their families to fill out.
The new FAFSA requires students to answer as few as 18 questions, a process that could take less than 10 minutes, the Education Department said. The department also estimates that 610,000 additional students from low-income backgrounds will become eligible for federal Pell Grants under new aid calculations.
But the FAFSA's so-far limited availability has meant interested applicants have struggled to test the new system, and the delayed launch means students will have less time to compare their financial aid options.
Under the law, the Education Department had until Jan. 1 to unveil the application for the 2024-25 school year. The form has traditionally opened to prospective students on Oct. 1, giving colleges and applicants more time to make and weigh offers.
Some higher ed experts say the agency functionally missed its deadline due to the form's limited availability.
The department has stressed that students will have ample time to complete the FAFSA and should not feel compelled to do so during the soft launch. It also said it will not submit any student information to colleges, states and scholarship organizations until the end of January.
Even by soft-launch standards, the FAFSA rollout has been challenging, according to Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA.
"Students, families, and financial aid administrators who have been waiting for this release for months are understandably frustrated," he said in a Tuesday statement.
Draeger acknowledged that the department is working to get the FAFSA fully online but said the current issues are upsetting aid timelines.
The department's published timeline does not provide exact dates, with key events narrowed down only to the month.
"Even if students fill out the FAFSA today, we still don’t have an exact date of when schools will receive FAFSA applicant data, so financial aid administrators can begin building and communicating financial aid packages," Draeger said.
As a result, "schools cannot provide realistic timelines about when students and families will receive financial aid offers," he said.
For example, three public universities in Arkansas announced new scholarships that require applicants to submit the FAFSA. But the federal redesign has kept officials from determining whether students are eligible and, as a result, they delayed the programs' implementation, according to the Arkansas Advocate.
The Education Department advised colleges to plan on processing FAFSA and making financial aid offers later than usual.
"If possible, we recommend you plan these events for later in January and in February to account for the soft launch period, in the event there is planned site maintenance that could impact your events," the agency said.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment Wednesday.