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The federal government is revamping FAFSA, which allows students to apply for college financial aid. Here's what you need to know. (Zen Chung/Pexels)

FAFSA 101: How to Apply, Due Dates and What to Know About Those Delays

FAFSA 101: How to Apply, Due Dates and What to Know About Those Delays

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Updated 1:50 p.m. on Tuesday, February 20

At the best of times, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — can be a dreaded process for students across the country hoping to go to college.

This is mainly due to the application’s length and detailed, confusing tax questions — and these complications leave billions of dollars of aid unclaimed. In December 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act with the goal of making it easier for students to claim available financial aid.

The Department of Education, which manages FAFSA, launched a revamped version of the form on Dec. 30, 2023, and this version looks very different from what we’ve seen before. However, the federal agency has reported several complications in this year’s FASFSA rollout — and officials have already said that the Department of Education won’t be sending students’ FAFSA information to schools until March, which is much later than in previous years.

Some of the changes in the new FAFSA have made the process of filling out the form easier for students. Other changes have actually made the process quite a bit more stressful for students. Keep reading to learn more about the new FAFSA.

Rest assured that there are resources and organizations available to help you with FAFSA — including the California Student Aid Commission’s Cash for College webinar in January, which is free and available to any student completing the FAFSA or the Dream Act application. The Commission also hosts Train the Trainer workshops to teach community partners also to host financial aid workshops.

We also have a guide to talking to your family about FAFSA — especially if they’re not usually comfortable talking about their finances with you.

There’s a new FAFSA timeline for 2024

In 2023, the Department of Education promised that the revamped FAFSA would launch sometime in December. And it did — but on Dec. 30. And because the form became available much later than normal, a lot of the steps in the financial aid process have been pushed back.

In the past, students applying for financial aid for the next academic year could start on their FAFSA around October, apply for regular admission for most schools around December and January, then receive acceptance letters in March and April. Along with their acceptance letters, many schools also send out additional documents with information on annual costs and how much financial aid a student is eligible for.

This year, FAFSA came out when many students were rushing to get their college applications in before the deadline. And in January, the Department of Education confirmed that it needed to fix a major mistake in the way FAFSA was calculating a student’s financial need. Since the pandemic began in 2020, the US has experienced strong levels of economic inflation, meaning that things have become much more expensive.

The new FAFSA did not take into account that students and families had less available income for education. This mistake could have had serious consequences for millions of low- and middle-income families who already struggle to pay for the cost of higher education.

Things then got even more complicated. At the end of January, the Department of Education announced it would send students’ FAFSA data to colleges through March. Previously, it had said it would start sending that data in late January. However, NPR reported that one big reason for the delay is that the department is taking time to fix that inflation mistake.

So colleges will have a better idea of how much money a student needs — but also a lot less time to make these calculations and send out financial aid letters.

If you receive an acceptance letter that doesn’t include information on financial aid you qualify for, don’t panic. Email the school’s financial aid office and ask what timeline they have for sending out this information. It’s likely they may be sending that letter out later than in previous years. Additionally, you can ask the college if they plan to push back the deadline for when they expect students to decide on whether to enroll in the school. For example, schools in the University of California and California State University systems have now pushed back this deadline to May 15.

Students in California will also have more time to apply for state aid. If you are a high school senior or a transfer student and are planning to go to a 4-year institution — like a school in the University of California or Cal State system — you now have until April 2 to apply for the Cal Grant. You will need to complete the FAFSA before that date to qualify for a Cal Grant.

If you’re planning to enroll in a California community college, there is a community college-specific state aid program: Cal Grant Community College Entitlement Award. The deadline for that program has also been extended, to September 2.

In 2024, your FAFSA application isn’t as long

“The FAFSA and financial aid process can be very overwhelming, very complex,” said Michael Lemus, the outreach and marketing manager at the California Student Aid Commission.

The original FAFSA application was over 100 questions. Now, as of this year, it is going to be fewer than 50 questions, Lemus said.

“It’s always been super, super long,” Lemus said of the application. “I’m someone that filled it out myself when I was in high school and in college, and I just remember it being a stressful period of time,” he said.

FAFSA’s infamous length, Lemus said, can be a deterrent — “especially for folks that their families might not be as comfortable with filling out these applications or just aware of all the terminology.”

“So some of the changes that are being looked at are making those questions easier to understand and lessening the questions,” Lemus said.

The new FAFSA will be connected to data from the Internal Revenue Service to automatically populate that tax information in the forms, Lemus said. “So it’ll save a lot of time, and it’ll just actually populate from the information that the family’s able to provide instead of a lot of the manual entry that a lot of folks are used to,” he said.

Some questions being taken out include inquiries on drug convictions.

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FAFSA now has new ways to measure eligibility for student aid

There is a new metric to determine how much a student can qualify for aid, said Shelveen Ratnam, a spokesperson for the California Student Aid Commission.

The Student Aid Index (SAI) will replace the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that was generated by the FAFSA and is “a metric to understand the relative amount that the formula estimates a student can contribute,” Ratnam told KQED in an email. “The SAI will help inform how much federal aid, and in some instances other institutional aid, for which a student might qualify.”

Expected Family Contribution was something of a misleading name, Ratnam said because it did not truly reflect the cost someone would be paying for college by including factors like student loan interest.

Ratnam said that the EFC also factored in how many other college students were in a family — which could negatively impact someone’s eligibility for financial aid. The new Student Aid Index does not do this.

SAI also has a larger range, meaning students with larger financial needs have more chances for more aid (PDF).

“With the SAI, applicants can receive an SAI below $0, with the lowest being negative $1500, which would help make it easier for financial aid counselors to determine a student’s financial need,” Ratnam said. “With the previous EFC, the lowest an applicant would receive would be $0.”

The equation for determining financial need is calculated by subtracting your SAI from your cost of attendance.

More applicants now qualify for grants through FAFSA

The Federal Pell Grant will also be expanded to more students, linking eligibility to family size and federal poverty level.

You can use this website (link to PDF) to look up your situation and income to gauge how much aid you can get.

The SAI kicks in here, too, as students who don’t qualify for Pell Grants based on income may qualify based on SAI. Another change: “Additionally, incarcerated students will regain the ability to receive a Pell Grant,” Ratnam said.

“FAFSA simplification and the new SAI expands eligibility for Pell Grants to more students and increases the numbers of students that will qualify for a maximum Pell Grant,” Ratnam said. “Students with two parents whose adjusted gross income is less [than] or equal to 175% of the poverty line and 225% of the poverty line for a single-parent household now qualify for the maximum Pell Grant.”

Plus: A new option for students interested in attending HBCUs

California does not have historically Black colleges or universities, meaning students would have to give up state-based financial aid if they want to go to one.

However, Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed into law AB 1400, which allows for a one-time $5,000 grant to California Community College students transferring to an HBCU.

A group of young people walk together on what looks like a city street, dressed warmly and smiling at each other.
This year, FAFSA is opening in December. (Keira Burton/Pexels)

What undocumented students need to know about FAFSA and financial aid

What if I’m a citizen, but my parents are undocumented and don’t have a Social Security number?

The Department of Education confirmed repeatedly during 2023 that the new FAFSA would allow mixed-status families to complete the form without a problem. The department told KQED back then that undocumented parents could make an FSA ID and fill out the parent’s portion of the form without needing to input a Social Security number.

However, a technical glitch is now blocking mixed-status families from completing the FAFSA — putting many students in a very stressful situation. Without the FAFSA, students are not eligible to receive grants and loans from the federal government or the state. University financial aid offices, however, are still encouraging students to keep trying to complete the FAFSA while the Department of Education fixes this latest mistake.

The deadline to apply for state aid is April 2. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature have the power to push back the deadline.

What if I’m undocumented? Can I still apply for FAFSA?

If you, as the student, are undocumented and do not have a Social Security number, unfortunately, you cannot complete the FAFSA.

However, in this situation, there are still ways to look for financial aid for college, even if you are undocumented. Undocumented students in California can complete the California Dream Act Application (CADAA) in order to be eligible for state grants and loans for college (keep reading for more information on this application). You can also complete the CADAA if you have a valid or expired DACA, a U Visa or Temporary Protected Status.

Undocumented students can also apply to dozens of private colleges and universities and also apply for the scholarships and grants these schools offer. Make sure to check with each school you are interested in to see if they offer aid to undocumented students and what their process is like.

Changes to know about the California Dream Act

The California Dream Act — which provides aid for undocumented students — will also be streamlined in the future to mirror the FAFSA, known as the Better California Dream Act Application.

Dream Act applications will open in December, around the same to-be-announced date that the 2023 FAFSA application opens.

“We are the ones, here at the California Student Commission, that administer the California Dream Act application,” Lemus said. “So we actually are the ones that can go ahead and change it.”

With the arrival of the Better FAFSA application, the California Student Commission is now also looking at how to similarly streamline and simplify the California Dream Act for 2023, Lemus said.

“As every year goes by, we’re listening for feedback, and so we’re constantly wanting to make updates as they come up,” Lemus said. “But what we’re looking at is also waiting on the updates to see what the FAFSA is going to look like, to see how we can streamline the California Dream Act.”

In short, there may be something of a waiting game for hopeful California Dream Act applicants to find out exactly how that process will work. Newsom has recently signed AB 1540 into law, which takes out an extra step for undocumented students to secure their aid by making the Dream Act application the only form they need to fill out (as opposed to submitting an affidavit to their college to verify their residency and be given a nonresident tuition exemption.)

In the current version of the FAFSA, students are asked to fill out the form, and if their parents are undocumented, they will write 000-00-0000 as the Social Security Number. A Department of Education spokesperson said that in the new FAFSA, undocumented parents can get an FSA ID without a Social Security number. The FAFSA form does not ask about the parents’ citizenship status. However, a technical glitch is currently blocking mixed-status families from completing the FAFSA.

Remember, undocumented students — including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — are not currently eligible for federal student aid.

A young person in a grey hoodie stands smiling and looking at someone whose back is to the camera.
FAFSA will be shorter and streamlined this year. (William Fortunato/Pexels)

If you’re also applying to private schools, don’t forget to complete the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is a separate application operated by the CollegeBoard and used by private colleges and universities to determine how much financial aid they will give to students, in addition to FAFSA.

Paul Dieken, head of financial aid at Pomona College, a private liberal arts school in Southern California, said that his team looks at both FAFSA and the CSS Profile to get a more complete picture of what a student’s financial situation is.

“The more money the college or university gets out of their own grants or scholarships, the more likely it is that they’re going to ask you to complete additional documentation like the CSS Profile,” he said. Many private schools, including Pomona, provide financial aid packages that include additional funds from donors or grants.

“The CSS Profile is really looking for financial resources that a family has access to,” Dieken said.

He points to home ownership as an example. “A family that owns a home, they’re economically stronger than a family that doesn’t own a home,” he said. “But FAFSA doesn’t collect that. That’s something that we only get through the CSS Profile data.”

If private schools are also on your list, you can go ahead and start the CSS Profile now. You’ll need a few more documents than what FAFSA asks for, including your parents’ W-2, bank statements from the past few months and records of properties or assets your family owns.

Make sure to give your family enough time to find the documents you’ll need to complete the CSS Profile. If there are questions you just can’t answer — for example, your parents are separated, and you are unable to contact one of them because of safety reasons — contact the financial aid staff of the schools you’re applying to so they can give you specific instructions on what to do.

Q. My parents work but don’t have tax information available. How can I complete FAFSA?

First, let’s do a quick breakdown of tax vocabulary:

  • A W-2 form is a tax document that an employer gives workers once a year, which shows how much the employer paid the worker that year.
  • A 1040 form is a tax document, also known as a tax return, that a worker completes themselves, usually with the help of a tax expert. This document is sent to the IRS each year to confirm how much that worker got paid and how much they owe the government in taxes.

Most people in the U.S. receive a W-2 form and then complete a 1040 form themselves. FAFSA will ask your parents to share information from last year’s documents. But let’s say you ask your parents and they don’t have this information. It could be for one of these reasons:

If your parent is a gig worker, such as driving for Uber or doing deliveries for GrubHub, they most likely did not get a W-2 form. Instead, the company they work for gave them a 1099 form. Ask for “their 1099” instead.

If your parent did not work last year and received unemployment benefits instead, they most likely did not get a W-2 form. Instead, the state government sent them a 1099-G form, which lists how much they received from unemployment benefits. You can ask for this instead.

If your parent has a W-2 form but does not have last year’s 1040 form, this probably means they haven’t filed their taxes yet. Colleges will still want to see your parents’ taxes.

Talk to your parents about scheduling an appointment with a tax preparer to catch up on this. There are many community organizations that offer free tax filing services year-round. In the Bay Area, United Way can connect you to online and in-person tax help — and your parents could potentially qualify to get cash back from the government when they file, based on their income and the size of your family.

If your family still needs to file their taxes, keep the schools you’re applying to updated about this step.

In some cases, parents may be working at a job where they just won’t receive a W-2 or 1099 at all. Perhaps they work as a housecleaner, a nanny, a landscaper, a farmworker or another job where they haven’t signed a formal paper contract and are getting paid in cash. If this is your family’s situation, don’t panic. There are solutions. But you’ll have to act quickly.

Rosanna Ferro, chief of education at Oakland-based nonprofit College Track, recommends you first ask your parents, “How have you gotten paid in the past year or two?”

Ferro, whose organization works to help first-generation and low-income high school students from across the country graduate college, said that the point of this question is twofold: How often do your parents get paid, and how much do they get paid? The piece of information you need is what’s called “proof of income,” which can help you calculate how much your parents got paid per year.

For example, let’s say your dad cleans houses and charges $100 per house. Based on the information he shares, you estimate that he can usually clean 10 houses a week. That approximates that he’s earning roughly $4,000 a month. Multiply that by 12 months, and you get an estimated $48,000 per year.

You may have to get crafty to help your parents organize this information, Ferro said. “Whether it’s creating an Excel sheet, a Google folder or scanning something — taking a picture, a receipt or anything that shows income in any kind of way and storing it in a way that’s going to be accessible to you,” she said.

Helping your parents create a digital record of their earnings will also help you in the future when you have to fill out FAFSA again every year you’re in college. This will be especially important if you go to a school far away from home and no longer have easy access to physical receipts.

While you’re doing this, remember to contact a financial aid officer from any of the schools you’re applying to, who can advise your family on how to best input this information into FAFSA. They may ask you to share additional documents, like a letter from an employer or potentially filing a 1040 form with the data you’ve gathered.

“All in all, we ask for information that you can put in as accurately as possible,” said Sonia Jethani, the director of the financial aid office at California State University, East Bay.

Three young people walk together on what looks like a city street, dressed warmly and smiling at each other.
How can you work with your family to accurately complete your FAFSA? (Keira Burton/Pexels)

What else should I know about FAFSA in 2024?

The California Student Aid Commission’s Michael Lemus said students can use the California Student Commission as a resource for financial aid questions. Their website will soon have a Better FAFSA tool kit.

Lemus advised people to start early and for seniors in the fall to stay in close contact with their high school counselor.

“It’s interesting this year because the FAFSA is delayed,” he said. “But what I would recommend is just making sure that they start getting more comfortable with the financial aid process,” which could include familiarizing yourself with the types of aid available — to be ready and primed when FAFSA applications finally open in December. “While the application itself is changing, the types of aid, for the most part, are remaining the same,” Lemus said.

“Try not to stress,” Lemus said, even though these changes can feel overwhelming and contain a lot of unknowns. He added that teachers and educators will also be trained on the new changes, providing another point of contact and resources for applicants.

And if you come across something that you just can’t find an answer to? “Just know that [at] the California [Student] Commission, we are very much aware of these, and we have it on our radar,” Lemus said. “So if they want to start off with us, to ask questions, they definitely can.”

Get in contact with the California Student Commission.

A version of this story originally published on Dec. 6, and includes reporting from NPR’s Cory Turner and CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn.

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