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Changes to FAFSA causing some headaches for Bradley University students and staff

Jeff Smudde
The front of Bradley Hall

The higher education financial aid process got a major facelift, but the outcomes so far are leaving many students and staff around the Hilltop with something to be desired.

FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, uses students and their families’ financial information to help the U.S. Department of Education determine if they qualify for federal aid to help pay for college. This year, FAFSA underwent huge changes meant to make filling it out quicker and easier.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone.

Following a multi-year overhaul of the application, many students and families across the country have reported web site glitches and site maintenance issues.

Bradley University senior mechanical engineering major Donato Sahlas said he is still waiting to get back this year's application from the Department of Education to clarify his entries.

Junior English creative writing major Anaiah Davis has struggled a bit as well, opting to try and gain more information before fully filling out the application.

“It’s definitely shorter and easier to fill out than previous years, but there have been some snags along the way and some things that are hard to understand,” Davis said.

The relaunch features a number of new changes, including fewer questions, the ability to list up to 20 colleges instead of 10, and more language options. Both Sahlas and Davis said there were some good changes made.

“You only get questions that are very specific to you and you don’t have to go through as many questions that you just have to keep saying no to,” Davis said.

The new application was soft launched on Dec. 31, much later than the October rollout the Department of Education has adhered to in the past. For Katie Benson, associate director of financial assistance at Bradley, the condensed timeline has been the biggest problem facing her office.

“A lot of students really rely on having timely and accurate financial assistance awards to decide not only where to go to college but whether or not to go to college,” Benson said. “Not being able to get those awards out as quickly as we usually do is leaving high school seniors with a lot less time to make those financial investment decisions about their college education.”

Benson said her office normally sends out awards for prospective students in November, but this year they still haven't received processed information, despite being told they’d receive it at the end of January. She also said there’s been a lack of communication between the Department of Education and the university.

“These changes have the potential to do a lot of good, but right now there’s a lot of uncertainty around it and it is frustrating for everyone,” Benson said.

One of the changes Benson lauded was the new income reporting feature. Now, families will upload their annual income straight from the IRS as a part of the Student Aid Index, a number that ultimately determines your eligibility for financial aid from the school. Benson said this feature is much more dependable than the system used in the past.

However, Davis said she has had trouble with this part of the application, as the consent needed to transfer IRS information hasn’t been made available to her.

“I don’t know if it’s something on my end, or if I’m not figuring it out correctly, but I have not been able to do that so far,” Davis said.

While Davis struggles to use the new application’s features, Sahlas didn’t even know about the changes, instead opting to fill in his information manually.

“Knowing that that’s now an option, that will make it a lot easier going forward,” Sahlas said.

The example of Sahlas shows the Department of Education’s communication problems extends to students, as Benson said they haven’t done a good job informing students about the new process, why the delays are happening or when they can expect to see offers from schools.

“I feel like in years past it was longer but I had an easier time with it, almost,” Davis said. “I haven’t had to do as much external research than I have in the past couple days trying to do it.”

Overall, Sahlas and Davis are okay with the changes despite the problems they’ve faced.

“Previous years, it might’ve taken a few days to get information, but this year it was very streamlined,” Sahlas said.

Recently, the Department of Education unlocked an additional $1.8 billion in financial aid after failing to account for inflation in the initial form’s rollout. This, along with the updates to income reporting, opens up a lot more federal aid for kids trying to go to college, which is something that Benson and her office are excited about.

“I do think it has the potential for a lot of good, we just have to get through this first year,” Benson said.

Benson encourages students to fill out the FAFSA as soon as they are able, adding her office is always available for any questions.

Still, she understands how difficult the changes can be for students preparing for the next step in their academic career.

“That timeline has really hindered students’ ability to make informed financial decisions ahead of time with ample time to review it and to discuss those possibilities as a family,” Benson said.

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.