USA Today: If you're applying for college, there's good news and bad news on federal financial aid

The process of how to submit FAFSA has been updated, but the simplified form won't be available until December. Here's why this matters.

By: Trooper Sanders, Opinion Contributor

Originally published November 20, 2023 by USA Today

As many parents and students know, applying to college is never easy. But this school year promises a college application season with more uncertainty and change than we have seen in years.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that colleges can no longer explicitly use race as criteria for admissions. Standardized testing remains in question as more and more colleges and universities retain pandemic-era policies that eliminated SAT and ACT requirements. Add in the uncertainty brewing around major changes to the federal financial aid application, and an already complicated system may get much harder for the class of 2024.  

This is no small thing. Education is a prime driver of success in the workforce. Americans holding a bachelor’s degree are more likely to find employment and earn a third more in salary once they do, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

College is still the greatest lever we have to break the cycle of poverty, provide opportunity and put families on a path to prosperity. We owe it to our future workforce and our nation to provide a fair and fathomable college admissions system. It must be simple and straightforward to access the financial aid needed to make college affordable for all.

In 2019 and 2020, Congress passed a pair of laws aiming to do just that, and a simpler financial aid application process is about to come online – but it could get harder before it gets easier.

FAFSA application for student aid simplified – but it will be late

As many families know, the journey to fund college often begins with a bit of government arcana known as FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. It unlocks the door to billions of dollars in Pell Grants and other assistance that make higher education affordable for millions of students.

FAFSA is so important that a growing number of states are considering completion of the form a requirement for high school graduation.

But the form can also be an obstacle. Last year, 4 in every 10 high school students failed to complete it, leaving almost $3.6 billion in Pell Grants unused, according to the National College Attainment Network. And that doesn’t even include all the other doors the FAFSA opens, including grants and scholarships from states, private and nonprofit organizations and colleges themselves.

This year, the FAFSA form, submission process and eligibility formula will have significant updates, changes that by all accounts are smart and welcome. But the simplified form won’t be available until December, two months later than its usual release.

As such, students who want to start college next fall have a shorter window to apply for financial aid before they must decide which college to attend.

Here’s why that matters: Last year, more than 4.5 million students submitted their application between October and December.

The debut of a new form also means that all the FAFSA help and advice out there now is outdated.  

Not enough students get help with college admissions

Compounding the problem is that there simply are not enough college counselors and advisers to help high school students navigate the college application process. The American School Counselor Association reported in 2019 that the average ratio of students to counselors in high school was 311 to 1. That means about 1 in 5 students – 11 million total – were enrolled in a school without enough help.

Another study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that only a third of public high schools had a counselor helping with college admissions.

While that is heartbreaking, data shows that this is an area where technology can make a difference. In 2019, Benefits Data Trust created a free tool to help students navigate the FAFSA form by answering their questions and providing reminders, all via text message. The goal was to give high school seniors an intuitive tool that fits into their lifestyle.

Put another way, we wanted to enable an 18-year-old to get answers about financial aid while they sit up at 1 a.m., using only their phone. It worked better than we could have imagined.

The tool, known as Wyatt, uses artificial intelligence-powered chat to answer student questions. It has helped more than 30,000 students complete the FAFSA form, connecting them with almost $40 million in federal grant aid.

Controlling for several demographic factors, including race and parental education, we found that 45% of students using Wyatt completed their FAFSA forms, compared with 15% of similar students who did not use the tool.

Perhaps most inspiring was that low-income students were 34% more likely than their peers to fill out the FAFSA with Wyatt than they were without it.

Those are results we cannot ignore, because they show that the right blend of technology and behavioral science – delivered in ways that meet people where they are – can dramatically improve access to programs that make lives better and combat poverty, whether that is financial aid for college or help navigating America’s social safety net.

It is easy to see how communication technology can have a powerful impact on programs like Medicaid, which are frequently hampered by antiquated systems.

To help students on this year’s shortened timeline, we released the latest version of Wyatt this month, and we hope it will continue to help thousands of students operating without resources to continue their education. For all the improvements that have been made in recent years, college applications can still be a laborious process – and that’s before you figure out how to pay for it. 

We ask a lot of students who are working hard in the classroom every day. We should make sure they have the right tools to succeed.