April 22, 2024
Sonya Schwartz
Fellow, Institute for Responsive Government

Recoding America Chapter 14: The FAFSA


If Jennifer Pahlka wanted to add another chapter to Recoding America — her book about how government can work better in today’s digital age — it could easily have been a case study on the rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the “FAFSA”).

If you haven’t heard, FAFSA applications are way down in comparison to previous years, leading experts to believe less Americans may attend college in the Fall. The reason? Issues with implementing the new FAFSA form.

Back in 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which included a requirement to simplify and streamline the FAFSA form for the 2024-25 award year. The Act had the goal of making the application work more efficiently by paring down the number of questions on the student aid application dramatically — from 108 to a maximum of 36 — among other changes like expanding access to Pell Grants and changes to align a student and parents’ income.

However, not only was the The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) a year late in making the new online application available, the rollout was plagued with multiple problems, including:

  • A three-month delay in releasing the form this year
  • The application only being accessible online for a brief window each day
  • Technical errors that made it impossible for some families to complete the application
  • Tardiness from the DOE, which resulted in processing applications late so colleges could not issue financial aid awards

Families that called the Federal Student Aid Information Center to resolve problems were on hold for hours and often disconnected, wasting precious time and causing unnecessary frustration.

Though modernizing the FAFSA form was well intentioned, it instead caused headaches for many students and their families this year. It additionally caused issues for outside organizations that typically help families fill out the application, as they could not hold their usual FAFSA completion events. For example, an admissions official at UNC testified that by April 10 data was running six months behind schedule, only allowing the university to receive about 60 percent of records. 20 percent of those records had rejected statuses and many were riddled with inaccuracies and technical errors. College decisions are due May 1, and the functionality for students to make corrections is just going live in mid to late April, offering prospective students little to no time to fix their forms.

Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar amongst government program rollouts. And at a time where Americans are struggling to feed their families, the least the government can do is ensure that aid applications function properly. As Pahlka outlines in Recoding America, our nation is limping into the digital age, causing processes that should be easier to become cumbersome — and it’s clear that the DOE is no exception.

So where did the program falter? At the heart of the issue is what you would expect: Funding. Like many government online applications, the FAFSA is built off a legacy system with outdated programming language (a 46-year-old system according to GAO), requiring a substantial amount of money and lead time to upgrade. The process took longer than anticipated, delaying necessary upgrades to the program. Also the change in administrations from Trump to Biden — in addition to the partisan narrative surrounding Biden’s student debt relief — made it difficult to get Congress to agree to provide the much needed additional funding. Although DOE staff flagged their concerns early and often, political leadership treated application changes as a technocratic venture that civil servants and contractors could manage on their own rather than a joint venture to streamline the policy and application process.

The lesser known issue that is equally important to funding, if not more important, is the implementation of the program updates. Far too often, implementation is overlooked — legislators and issue-based groups on both the federal and state levels work incredibly hard to pass policy, and once the policy is passed, they move on to the next issue at hand. This leaves the implementation of bills on the backburner. With the updated FAFSA form, there were two main implementation issues. First was that the timeline laid out did not include rigorous user testing, which most likely would have identified multiple errors ahead of launching, providing the implementation team with ample time to fix them. Second, the implementation team did not account for fairly common scenarios to test, such as students whose parents do not have SSNs, or people who need to reenter the form to make corrections.

While the Institute for Responsive Government does not typically cover education issues, it’s clear from this scenario that aid programs across government agencies can benefit from proper implementation before rolling them out to the general public. At the end of the day receiving financial aid can make or break a student’s future. It’s about time for our government to take implementation of programs seriously to ensure that the 85 percent of U.S. college students that rely on some type of aid have adequate access to that financial support.