A New and Better FAFSA

A math teacher helps a student during a trigonometry lesson.

Dear colleagues,

As the mother of a high school junior, the college process is looming on the horizon. As we prepare, I’m reminded of just how much information and support students need to figure out the postsecondary path that is best for them—including what options are most affordable for their family. 

As we all know, cost is a major consideration as students decide what comes after high school. All too often, students and families make assumptions about the cost and the complexity of paying for college. This is understandable: It is expensive and unduly complex. But there is a positive change on the horizon. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the federal form that students must fill out to receive federal financial aid, and this winter it’s getting a major update. 

  • The new FAFSA—aka Better FAFSA—will be more user-friendly, slimmed down from 108 questions to under 50. A streamlined approach to sharing tax information will make it easier for students and families to finish the application, and other changes make it simpler for youth who may be homeless, orphans, or former foster youth to apply independently. 
  • This year, just 51% of the high school graduating class completed the FAFSA, leaving $3.58 billion in Pell Grants on the table. With a simpler form, more students should be able to complete the FAFSA and receive the aid they are eligible for.
  • More on those Pell Grants: The way eligibility is determined for federal grants for low-income students is changing, and the change is poised to deliver major positive impact. The new methodology is expected to expand access to Pell grants by nearly 15%. Early modeling by SHEEO, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, estimates that 43% percent of students currently ineligible for Pell Grants will become eligible, and of students currently eligible for Pell Grants, 84% will see their Pell awards increase. 

But to tap into those funds, students need to fill out the FAFSA.  

  • Historically, completion of the FAFSA is a strong predictor of whether a high school senior will go on to college. 
  • Students who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to enroll in the fall—for students from the lowest income bracket, FAFSA completion is associated with a 127% increase in immediate college enrollment.

More students applying for the FAFSA leads to more students getting aid, and more students enrolling in college. Adjustments like these are a win for all. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) and other partners (such as uAspire, with this great piece) are working hard to support students and families to access the aid they need as the new FAFSA rolls out. Check out BetterFAFSA101.com to learn more.

Sara Allan
Director, Early Learning and Pathways
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

In this issue of Wayfinders: learn about FAFSA resources for pathways organizations and people directly serving students, such as high school advisors.

FAFSA Resource: Prep Webinars for Advisors

What is it? The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) is hosting monthly free webinars to explain Better FAFSA and the coming changes.

Why does it matter? This year, the FAFSA will be available in December rather than the usual October. Counselors and other student supporters should use the fall to get up to date on the changes and prepare students with FSA IDs so they can be ready to process and submit their FAFSA quickly. Advisors should also help students use the Pell lookup tables to understand the aid that might be available to them, a key factor as students make decisions about whether to and where to apply for college.

FAFSA Resource: Better FAFSA Awareness Toolkit

What is it? A collection of sample social media content, newsletters, op-eds, talking points, and frequently asked questions that you can use to inform your networks and communities about Better FASFA.

Why does it matter? If students and families aren’t aware of these changes, they stand to miss out on thousands of dollars of potential aid. If you’re part of an organization that can help spread the word, please do!

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