FAFSA Simplification: Is Your Campus Ready?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Simplification Act is poised to become the largest shift in the history of financial aid. While this new legislation is intended to streamline and simplify the process of applying for federal student aid, making it easier for students and families to access financial assistance for higher education, it’s happening at a time when many institutions are understaffed and unprepared to handle the far-reaching impact.
CampusWorks’ financial aid expert Shannon Sheaff recently led a webinar to prepare financial aid administrators for the forthcoming changes related to the Simplified FAFSA, which is expected to open on January 1, 2024. (Watch the webinar replay ») In this article, we will recap the timely, relevant information she shared as well as tools and resources to help your institution prepare.
FAFSA Simplification: An Overview
The Higher Education Act (HEA), enacted in 1965, is a federal law that authorizes federal student aid programs and federal support to postsecondary institutions of higher education.
During the first 43 years of this legislation, there were relatively few changes. However, from 2008-2016, more federal regulations were implemented in eight years than during the previous four decades, the implementation of which proved challenging for even the most experienced financial aid directors. Since 2016, we’ve seen many long-time aid directors retire, leaving behind a dearth of talent and knowledge. The pandemic complicated matters further by creating circumstances that motivated many Financial Aid staff members to switch jobs, change careers, or leave the workforce entirely. This has placed a significant burden on newer staff who don’t yet know the regulations, which can take 3-5 years to gain a comprehensive understanding.
FAFSA simplification has been on the federal agenda for years, and it’s finally happening. While the timing is not ideal, we can’t lose sight of the fact that financial aid has historically been a complicated process for students, especially first generations students. If the new Simplified FAFSA achieves its goal of expanding access to financial support for students in need, the forthcoming changes will be worth it.
Short lead time to:
- Implement a whole new system
- Implement new, burdensome requirements
- Educate the community
- Regulatory changes
- Technology changes
- New terminology
- New eligibility calculation
- Multiple stakeholders
- Financial aid
Dependent on others for success:
- Federal Student Aid (FSA)
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor
Financial Aid isn’t prepared:
- Steep learning curve
- Already low on bandwidth
- Don’t have time to get ahead
Institutional Readiness & Barriers to Success
While the FAFSA Simplification aims to simplify financial aid processing and packaging, it will require institutions to start from scratch with new tools, rules, eligibility calculations, terminology, and players.
According to the “FAFSA Simplification Pre-Implementation Survey,” conducted by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) in February 2023, to determine institutions’ overall level of preparedness for the upcoming changes. Of the 274 respondents, more than half reported they are “somewhat on track.”
- Completely on track: 1%
- Mostly on track: 27%
- Somewhat on track: 59%
- Not at all on track: 10%
- Unsure/don’t know: 2%
Survey respondents were also asked to choose the top three barriers to their office’s successful implementation of the upcoming FAFSA simplification changes on their campus. They reported the following:
- Staffing shortages: 55%
- Funding shortages: 13%
- Lack of buy-in from senior leadership: 5%
- Lack of IT resources: 34%
- Lack of time: 59%
- Lack of guidance from Department of Education: 58%
- Lack of confidence that the student information system (SIS) provider will be ready for changes: 56%
- Haven’t had time to become informed about upcoming changes: 19%
To address the high level of unpreparedness and lack of guidance, FSA is offering “Better FAFSA, Better Future”, a series of 11 live webinars in June-July 2023 about the implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act, the FUTURE Act, and what your institution needs to know about upcoming changes for the 2024–25 award year.
Regarding ERP system updates, at the 2023 Ellucian Live Conference, Ellucian announced plans to roll out new patches and updates for Banner and Colleague once the file layouts have been finalized and tested. If you haven’t heard from your ERP vendor, reach out soon to learn about their plans to support the FAFSA Simplification changes and determine what help your staff will need to navigate them.
Questions to Ask Your Financial Aid Office:
The NASFAA survey also revealed that at more than half of the institutions that responded, senior leaders are “somewhat unengaged” or “not at all engaged” in the Financial Aid Office’s implementation of the upcoming FAFSA simplification changes.
Without senior leader engagement, institutions run the risk of not being prepared to effectively adopt the Simplified FAFSA, which will create chaos and impact students’ access to aid. To determine your institution’s readiness and identify gaps that must be addressed between now and the end of the year, ask these questions:
Is the Financial Aid Office running efficiently and up to date on all regulations and processes now?
- Are most processes automated?
- Are all forms electronic?
- How does Financial Aid communicate with students? Is text messaging being used?
- When was the last time the Financial Aid Office replaced key equipment (i.e., laptops and computers)? What is the cost of old, inefficient equipment that delays processing times?
What resources does Financial Aid need to get on track and implement the new FAFSA?
- Temporary staff — such as IT support, Financial Aid staff, and project managers — can be helpful in setting up new programs and systems, providing front-line service or training for staff, and processing aid.
- Monetary support is needed to ensure enrollment and staff sanity are not negatively impacted by the FAFSA changes. Consider investments in staffing, enterprise system modernization, marketing, equipment, and even catering to support staff who work long hours to implement the FAFSA changes.
- Do we have the right leadership involved to make this transition?
- Do we have the right support in place to make this transition?
- Who else should be involved?
- Admissions staff are on the front lines working with new students. Ensure they are prepared to talk about the FAFSA changes.
- This is an opportune time for the VP Enrollment and/or Student Affairs leader to engage and understand the needs of these teams to make sure they have the necessary support.
- Marketing will play a critical role in leveraging social media, texting campaigns, and other forms of communication to spread the word.
- Educational Opportunity Program (EOP)/TRIO and Student Success staff should attend the FSA’s “Better FAFSA, Better Future” Webinar Series to learn about the forthcoming changes and prepare to support students.
- Members of student government can be great partners to help spread the word to students and manage emotions should frustrations arise with the new FAFSA.
- What is the timeline for implementing the new FAFSA?
- What is the training plan?
- Have you studied the impact of the Simplified FAFSA on financial aid packages to determine how students’ access to aid will be impacted?
- How will you know financial aid is on track?
Training Resources to Help You Prepare
- National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) Conference
- Location: San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California
- Dates: June 29 – July 2, 2023 (this event has taken place)
- Better FAFSA, Better Future Webinar Series
- 11 live webinars
- Location: Microsoft Teams
- Multiple dates from Tuesday, June 6 – Tuesday, July 25 at 1-2 pm/ET (this event has taken place)
- State and regional trainings
- Industry webinars
CampusWorks Resources to Help You Execute
Whether you need an extra set of hands (or several), CampusWorks has functional and technical resources that can help you get ready to implement the Simplified FAFSA.
We can provide:
- Financial Aid Leadership
- Change Leaders
- Project Management
- IT Support:
- Business Analysts
Need help implementing the Simplified FAFSA? Not sure where to start? Let’s talk. We’ll listen.