© 2024 WNIJ and WNIU
Northern Public Radio
801 N 1st St.
DeKalb, IL 60115
Northern Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

FAFSA just changed a lot. What does it mean for Illinois students?

Spencer Tritt
DeKalb High School

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA application underwent significant changes this year and was delayed for months. Now the application window is officially open.

Leana Davis says this is by far the biggest FAFSA revision she’s seen during her decade-plus in higher education. She’s the Executive Director of Financial Aid at Rock Valley College.

Those seismic shifts caused delays and a bumpy rollout where some families had trouble accessing the studentaid.gov website and were put into virtual waiting rooms.


There are a lot of important changes to this year’s form, but the most substantial is that the Department of Education overhauled the formula for how financial aid is calculated. Davis says it used to be based on a student’s Expected Family Contribution or EFC. Now, it’s called the Student Aid Index.

Here’s how the old Expected Family Contribution would work:

“The government would say, 'we anticipate that you'll spend 11% of your adjusted gross income on medical expenses, or you're this close to retirement, so we estimate that you'll spend this percent on retirement savings,'" said Davis. "I think now they're just taking a better snapshot of the student’s and families’ actual financial situation. And they're also pulling the information directly from the IRS, which is very, very helpful.”

That’s also a major part of the new FAFSA. Whereas, previously, students might have to manually enter tax information or go through a tricky IRS tax retrieval process, now most of that information is automatically uploaded into your application.

That means, for many students, this year’s application will have fewer questions and will be quicker to fill out.

Sol Jensen is the VP for Enrollment Management, Marketing & Communications at Northern Illinois University.

He says that the lowest the old “Expected Family Contribution” could go was zero. However, with the Student Aid Index, students with substantial financial need can have a negative number.

“You know, with a population of quite a few students who are lower income and have a high financial need, we're still not yet sure how that's going to impact a lot of our students," said Jensen.


More students are expected to qualify for federal aid with the new FAFSA. Some studies say hundreds of thousands more students will be eligible for federal Pell Grants. That could mean a net increase of over $7 billion in Pell awards, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Jensen says institutions aren’t positive how that will affect the awards a student receives.

“We hear this is going to increase the total number of students who are eligible for Pell grants from the federal government," he said. "I don't know if anyone at the federal level has approved a massive increase in the Pell budget."

He says through the fall and winter they’ve had students come to them with questions about the new process, but they haven’t always had answers.

“The institutions have been somewhat blind to the real ins and outs," said Jensen. "We knew what some of the major changes were going to be and how those potentially would impact students and families but we didn't necessarily know -- and it's still don't necessarily know -- how that's going to impact other aspects of the awarding process.”


Both Jensen and Leana Davis expect the new formula to be a good thing for students in the long run. But, Jensen says some students could see their financial aid go down.

“There are a couple of changes about assets for small businesses and assets for family farms, and those will have a bit of a negative impact compared to what it was previously," he said.

Students with more than one family member enrolled in collegemight see decreases in awards or eligibility too.

There are other changes that are positive. The application is now available in the 11 most commonly spoken languages in the U.S. as opposed to just English and Spanish. Students can now automatically send their FAFSA information to up to 20 colleges instead of 10. Also, incarcerated students are now eligible for Pell Grants for the first time in more than 25 years.


For Illinois students, Jensen says to try to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible -- preferably in January.

“We are being told by the state that they would like to have everything in by February 1 for students who had previously received MAP grants," he said. "That's to make sure those students who had received MAP grants before are going to be able to receive those again. I think they are concerned about the changes here and not knowing how it's going to impact [awards] and if we're going to have a lot more students eligible where the state may not be able to fund all of those math grants as we have in the past.”

And even though the application itself can take less than half an hour to fill out, the process itself still takes a few days. Davis says that’s because dependent students and parents or guardians must create FSA IDs, which can take a few days to be approved and ready to use.

“They all have to have their own FSA ID," she said. "And they all have to provide consent for the IRS to move their data. So, that's going to be a big change for people that they're not used to seeing.”

Jensen also has advice on how to get through the process.

“I would encourage students to do it first because when the students do it, they can put in parent email addresses. Then after the student completes it, it'll email the parent and really all they have to do is click a link, and then complete the rest of the information from there," he said.


Even if students don’t think they’ll qualify for aid, Davis says you should still apply because you may be eligible for other opportunities.

“You don't have to be eligible for federal aid to be eligible for say, federal work study," said Davis.

And, she says if the new system, delays or waiting rooms have you stressed out -- you’re not alone.

“I think it's important for them to just remember that everyone's in the same boat, right?" she said. "Like we're all a little bit behind -- which means we're not behind at all."

Students have until the end of June to finish the FAFSA, although Davis says to complete it as soon as possible so they have time to make decisions about their future. Students wrapping up their FAFSA now probably shouldn’t expect to see their award package until the spring.

If they have questions or concerns about their application, students can also reach out to the Financial Aid office at the colleges they’re applying to or the school they currently attend.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.