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The first version of what the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid will look like is here, and it’s not the short application many have hoped for. It has 46 questions and runs 21 pages, although many students won’t have to answer all the questions.

Still, a combination of technology and legislative changes should lead to a simpler process to fill out the application, which is essential for students to access need-based federal and state financial aid.

“[A] paper form was never going to be simpler,” said Jill Desjean, a senior policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “The online experience is where the simplicity is because you can get that data directly from the IRS, and you’ve got all the skip logic built in. Technology and new legislation has made it such that the dream of the shorter FAFSA really became the dream of the shorter and simpler online FAFSA.”

The Education Department released the draft and other supplementary materials last week and will accept comments on the form through May 23 before finalizing the document. The draft materials only include the paper application, though most students use the online portal to apply for aid.

“[The form] looks less like a tax form and less intimidating,” Desjean said, adding that it has been completely reorganized.

The new application won’t be available to students until December—a few months later than usual because of the work involved to update the form. The department has been working to overhaul the form and the underlying system for distributing billions in federal financial aid since Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020. That law opened up the Pell Grant to incarcerated students and simplified the criteria for Pell Grant eligibility, among other changes. The draft materials include a similar FAFSA for incarcerated students.

Many of the print form’s 46 questions have multiple parts, but individuals who apply online won’t have to answer all those questions. Thanks to the federal FUTURE Act, the department will be able to automatically import federal tax information from the Internal Revenue Service into the FAFSA if the user consents.

“What you see in the PDF version of the paper FAFSA is much more complicated than what students and families will see online, since most of the financial questions will be answered after users authorize the secure transfer of their tax return information,” said Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, “So, the form 99 percent of students will see is even simpler.”

McKibben helped to write and negotiate the act while working with U.S. senator Patty Murray when the Washington Democrat was chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

He said that the new form will be easier to complete for students from a wide range of family circumstances.

“Students experiencing homelessness or not in contact with their parents will have a FAFSA they can actually complete,” he said.

Students whose families have an adjusted gross income of less than $60,000 won’t have to answer questions about assets, Desjean said.

“Lower-income students are going to be providing basically just consent and demographic information,” she said. “Everything else is just done for you or you get to skip it and then you’re finished with it. So I think it could be a really easy experience.”

The Office of Federal Student Aid is not planning to ask about students’ housing plans, a change that NASFAA is concerned could mean students receive inaccurate aid offers.

“The cost of attendance is a necessary component of student aid eligibility, and it cannot be constructed accurately without knowing a student’s housing choice,” NASFAA president Justin Draeger wrote in a letter to the department. “Removing the housing choice question from the FAFSA both defeats the purpose and goes against Congress’ intent for FAFSA simplification.”

Several of the comments already posted on the form urge the department to add the question back.

Desjean said the FAFSA Simplification Act restricts which questions the department can add to the form.

Currently, colleges and universities use a single estimate for housing costs regardless of whether the student plans to live on or off campus. However, the act requires institutions to be more precise with on-campus housing costs. Desjean said knowing students’ plans would help administrators prepare more accurate offers.

Desjean said that administrators will eventually know where a student is living.

“But that’s not when the students are getting their financial aid offer and making their decisions about what they want to borrow,” she said. “What will happen is they’ll get this somewhat accurate financial aid package in March or April, and then it will have to get updated in like June or July, whenever the school is sorting out their on-campus housing.”

She said that NASFAA feels adding the question back makes more sense.

“We don’t think Congress intended to make this more complicated,” she said.

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