(Note: This article has been updated to include clarifications and responses from the U.S. Department of Education.)
The federal government last year made several changes to the application process for federal financial aid, in an effort to make it easier and more straightforward. But one change -- switching from a four-digit PIN for online access to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to a more standard and secure log-in identification and password -- may be having the opposite effect.
“We are getting more complaints on this issue from our members than we’ve ever gotten on anything,” said Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations for the National College Access Network, an association of nonprofit groups and other organizations focused on expanding college access for low-income and first-generation college students.
Morgan said the group has received complaints from more than 40 of its member organizations, including several state agencies that administer state financial aid. No one element of the new ID system is specifically to blame, she said. But many aspects make the sign-up process prohibitively difficult, especially for low-income families with limited access to email or with lower technological literacy.
Some of the concerns seem fairly standard for any new online log-in procedure. But others are related to security features that, critics say, take things too far. Complaints include:
- The process overall is significantly longer than the old PIN system. The Department of Education, however, said the only change is the addition of security questions, and the whole process takes an average of seven minutes.
- The security questions, which can be used instead of email to recover a forgotten password or ID, are unusual (“Type a significant date in your life”) and difficult to correct if typed incorrectly. But the department said only one question is unusual, and that one is required to check loan balances via an automated call center. The others are either user-generated or the type used by banks or cell-phone providers.
- Email confirmations can take up to 24 hours, and in some cases, never appear at all. According to the department, those confirmations are sent within three minutes of filing, though spam filters do sometimes catch them, so users are encouraged to add an ID confirmation email address to their address book.
- Students often use and subsequently lose access to their high school email addresses, and some high schools prohibit students from using personal email accounts on campus. Both scenarios can disrupt FAFSA sign-up events or sessions. Adding an email is optional, though, and it can be changed later.
- One method for changing a forgotten password requires a 30-minute wait. If the change is made via email without using the security questions, however, that change takes effect immediately
- Accounts lock after multiple failed attempts to log in and the help-line wait can be hours. Currently though, the department said, the average wait-time is less than 40 seconds.
- The overall emphasis on an electronic ID method puts some low-income families at a disadvantage. It is, however, still possible to complete a paper FAFSA and to bypass the need for an internet ID, the department said.
“The department [of Education] needs to do something to address this problem now in this FAFSA season,” Morgan said. “The lack of urgency around this problem is staggering.”
The department said it has not received any recent “complaints” about the new financial-aid ID system, per a department spokesperson. However, many of the “inquiries” they have received are directly related to some of the recent changes.
“The increased security of the federal student aid ID makes it more difficult to create and use someone else’s federal student aid ID,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “This change is one of the largest drivers of inquiries.”
Still, according to the department, one million new IDs were created in the first full week of January, bringing the then-total to 21 million, which was in line with expectations.
The department also noted, “Any student or family -- low-income or otherwise -- without access to technical facilities or know-how can receive assistance through a wide network of college access groups, school counselors and other organizations.”
Mark Kantrowitz, a prominent financial aid analyst, said, “The process is proving to be confusing for some students.” But, he added, “I haven’t seen any signs of a bug in the system. It’s just a little more cumbersome.”
Some aspects, like the security questions, are “a lot more than what you normally get when you go to your bank’s website,” Kantrowitz said. And others are new and unfamiliar, such as requiring parents and students to obtain separate IDs. “It does make it more complicated, but it also makes it more secure, and I think it’s erring on the side of too secure,” he said. But “it doesn’t appear to be over the top.”
The problem, however, is that for low-income students, “Every additional barrier you erect between them and financial aid makes it more likely they will drop out of the process,” Kantrowitz said.
Dorie Nolt, a department spokeswoman, said numerous resources and materials to aid people in using the new system have been published on the department's website, updated and publicized since the changes were made eight months ago.
"Maybe the only thing we take more seriously than ease of access for our student loan borrowers is their security and privacy," Nolt said in an email. "Cybersecurity has changed significantly since 1998, so it was critical that we updated the security measures for our student borrowers using any of Federal Student Aid’s portals."