Financial Services staff weathers rocky FASFA rollout

Student Financial Services front line staff like Baily Dershem, a graduate intern on the Pullman campus, play a critical role in helping students navigate the FASFA.
Student Financial Services front line staff like Bailey Dershem, a graduate intern on the Pullman campus, play a critical role in helping students navigate the FAFSA.

The recent rollout of major changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is causing confusion, frustration, and delays for students and families. Fortunately, Student Financial Services staff across the Washington State University system are keeping on top of the changes and working with families to keep them informed and encouraged.

The changes to the application are part of the FAFSA Simplification Act passed by Congress in late 2020 and are intended to make it easier for students and their families to complete and submit the application. The changes are also expected to help more students qualify for the Pell Grant.

The overhaul of the application and related regulations is so sweeping that the U.S. Department of Education delayed making it available to students until December 2023, several months later than usual. Just days ago, the department announced it will not be able to transmit financial aid data to institutions until mid-March, so accordingly, WSU has moved its priority FAFSA deadline, as well as the deadline for the Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA), to May 1 for both new and current WSU students.

The delays and confusion are especially concerning for colleges and universities in Washington as high school graduates in the state traditionally complete the FAFSA at a much lower rate than in other states, leaving a lot of money on the table. According to a national FAFSA data tracking organization, just under 44% of Washington high school graduates complete the FAFSA, ranking Washington 44 out of 51 states.

While the FAFSA Simplification Act significantly shortened the overall length of the application, it changed a number of key elements, including questions on the form, how tax information is submitted, who can be listed on the application, and how the information will be sent to institutions. Students and families are also grappling with new terminology and a slew of technical glitches with the online application.

Joy Scourey, assistant vice provost for Enrollment Management at WSU Pullman, said the glitches are impacting students nationwide, not just at WSU.

“The soft launch laid out by the U.S. Department of Education has definitely been riddled with challenges,” Scourey said. “We are watching closely as things progress and are communicating with our students as soon as we receive updates from the FAFSA folks.”

Among the concerns being voiced by some WSU students and their families is the new requirement that stipulates income data must be directly transferred to the application by the IRS. 

“Some of them are distrustful of the government and others feel vulnerable because they aren’t sure how that information will be used,” said Jana Kay Lunstad, WSU Tri-Cities SFS director. “We are having a lot of conversations to reassure families that this information will be used just for educational purposes to help get them the most financial aid possible.”

SFS staff across the system are encouraging these kinds of conversations on and off campus through in-person and online workshops and financial aid events in their communities.

Brandon Buckingham, financial aid liaison and program coordinator at WSU Everett, recently helped several students who were having trouble signing and submitting the application, as well as a few parents who were having difficulty creating FAFSA accounts, during a financial aid night at Cascade High School.

“FAFSA is always stressful or anxiety inducing, so it is important for us to get out to the community as much as possible,” Buckingham said. “That is especially true this year with the rocky start we’ve seen with FAFSA.”

Marcela Pattinson, director of WSU’s Undocumented Student Center on the Pullman campus, is teaming up with SFS to host two FAFSA/WASFA parties for the multicultural community. The workshops will include an overview of FAFSA changes and time for students to work on their applications with an SFS representative ready to assist if needed.

Events like these keep SFS staff busy, but they are committed to being accessible to prospective and current students eager to learn how much aid they will receive. They are asking students to be patient with them and the system.

“We are advising them to have patience, there’s still time to get things done, and we are here to help answer their questions,” said Natalie Marquez, SFS director at WSU Vancouver.

Scourey offered similar words of encouragement.

“We are all in this together,” Scourey said. “If there are further delays or changes, we will adjust in whatever way necessary to help students come to WSU.”

Faculty and staff are encouraged to refer students experiencing difficulty with FAFSA to their campus SFS office or a scheduled outreach event. WSU Pullman and WSU Vancouver list events on their websites.

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