FAFSA simplification: Changes, concerns Robin Bailey / The Mainstream

What is changing? Why?

Significant adjustments to the upcoming Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) attempt to streamline the financial aid process by adapting eligibility calculations, re-engineering application questions and requiring a direct collection of tax information from the IRS.

Set to take place on the 2024–2025 FAFSA application this December 1, these adjustments introduce the following:

  • Contributor roles
  • Consent and approval
  • Provisional independence
  • StudentAid.gov accounts (FSA ID)

These adjustments result from the Department of Education's 2021 FAFSA Simplification Act, a "significant overhaul of the processes and systems used to award federal student aid." Federal Student Aid clarifies other key changes in their explanation of the Act.

Contributors: consent, approval

FAFSA now designates certain people as "contributors," or those contributing information to one form: the student applicant; student spouse (if any); parent; and parent spouse or partner (biological or adoptive).

Depending on the contributor's relationship to the student, they may be required to create their own StudentAid.gov account and provide a digital signature on the FAFSA. More information can be found in the Federal Student Aid's (FSA) explanatory video.

Students under the age of 24 are considered "dependents," and must collaborate with parents and/or spouses on their FAFSA. The incomes of these contributors are used in determining a Student Aid Index and financial aid award offer, regardless of if they intend to actually contribute to educational expenses.

Although this simplification is advertised as "streamlined," students should be aware that each contributor must provide individual consent and approval for the FSA to retrieve tax records directly from the IRS. "For the FAFSA form to be considered complete, all required contributors must complete and sign their respective sections," as stated in the October draft of the FAFSA Specifications Guide.

"Contributor refers to anyone... required to provide information, consent and approval and a signature on the FAFSA form." —Federal Student Aid (FSA)

Concern #1: Would my parent or spouse have to pay as a contributor?

Students' spouses and parents have expressed concern over whether being considered a "contributor" will require them to actually contribute to the student's financial aid.

Responding to such concerns in a recent webinar, FSA Outreach said, "Being a contributor does not implicate financial responsibility. However, if a contributor refuses to provide their information, it will result in an incomplete FAFSA form and the student will become ineligible for federal student aid."

Screen capture from "FAFSA Changes: An Overview" webinar. / FSA Outreach

Concern #2: Does every student have to include parents as contributors? Who is considered "independent"?

Many students question if listing parents or spouses as contributors can be avoided due to their refusal or inability to provide financial assistance. The answer is no — unless the student has circumstances qualifying them for "provisional" independence.

Dependency status is determined through a series of yes/no questions. Students who identify with at least one of the following are considered independent, according to FSA:

  • 24 years or older by January 1 of the awarding academic year (2024–25)
  • married and not separated
  • a graduate or professional student working toward a master's or doctorate degree
  • have children or other legal dependents (other than one's spouse) receiving more than half of their support in their household
  • a veteran of — or currently serving on active duty in — the U.S. armed forces
  • at any time before 13, had two deceased parents; were in foster care; or was a ward or dependent of the court
  • an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship as determined by a court
  • an unaccompanied youth either unhoused or self-supporting and at risk of becoming unhoused.

Students who do not identify with any of the above qualities are considered dependent and must have at least one other contributor reporting on their FAFSA form; however, students may be able to obtain provisional independence or adjustments to their aid assessments under unusual or special circumstances.

Concern #3: What if my parents are estranged or would endanger me? How do I gain provisional independence?

"Unusual circumstances refer to a situation where [a student] is unable to contact a parent or where contact with a parent would pose a risk." — FSA Outreach

FSA defined qualifying and disqualifying examples in their FAFSA webinar. Qualifying examples included:

  • human trafficking
  • legally granted refugee or asylum status
  • parental abandonment or estrangement
  • student or parental incarceration.

Disqualifying examples, or situations that are not considered unusual circumstances, included:

  • parents' refusal to contribute to education expenses
  • parents' refusal to provide information on the FAFSA form
  • parents who did not claim their student as a dependent for income tax purposes.

Provisional independence requires supporting documentation to be submitted directly to the student's attending school.

Students seeking provisional independence at UCC will meet with director of financial aid Michelle Bergmann who will make the final determination on dependency status, financial aid specialist Ben Horvath says.

Infographic series depicting the FAFSA process for students with unusual circumstances. Click the photos to enlarge and display properly. / Federal Student Aid

Concern #4: What if my finances have dramatically changed over the year?

"Special circumstances refer to [a student] or a contributor experiencing a significant change to [their] financial situation." — FSA Outreach

Special circumstances, also outlined in the FAFSA webinar, include:

  • loss of employment or financial assets
  • reduction in income, tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school
  • unusual medical or dental expenses not covered by insurance.

Students who have special circumstances should contact their financial aid offices to request an adjustment, provided they have supporting documentation. UCC's financial aid offices are located in the LaVerne Murphy Student Center.

Infographic series depicting the FAFSA process for students with special circumstances. Click the photos to enlarge and display properly. / Federal Student Aid

FSA ID: Creating a StudentAid.gov account

Infographic introducing the FSA ID requirement in completing an online FAFSA form. / Federal Student Aid

FSA IDs consist of "a username and password [created] to gain access to the U.S. Department of Education's online systems," also serving as a "legal signature when completing electronic documents," according to FSA.

"Whether you're a student, parent or borrower, you'll need to create your own account to manage the student loan journey." — FSA

For more information

UCC's financial aid offices, located in the LaVerne Murphy Student Center, are available to answer any questions students may have.

To keep up to date with information regarding the 2024–25 FAFSA, students may visit the Federal Student Aid's website.

Infographic displaying the later December release date of this year's FAFSA. / Federal Student Aid