NEW YORK (AP) — A new online application designed to make applying for federal student aid easier went live this week, but not everyone has been able to access it.
That’s led to worry and frustration for students like Simea Turner of Arlington, Texas, who will be a college freshman in the fall. Turner has been trying to access the application known as the FAFSA since Sunday, but she hasn’t been able to get past the first question.
“I’m nervous because I really need this money,” said Turner, a first-time applicant who expects to receive a significant amount of aid.
The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, typically opens at the beginning of October, but it was delayed three months due to the launch of the new application. Then, a few days before Sunday’s launch date, the Department of Education announced that a soft launch would continue until all of the bugs in the new application are fixed.
As of 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the department had received over half a million successful submissions, according to a spokesperson. Every year, more than 17 million students fill out the FAFSA, which uses financial information from students and their families to determine whether they can get financial aid from the federal government to pay for college.
When Nancy Dunn of Seven Hills, Ohio, got access to the application through her phone on Saturday, she immediately ran to her computer to complete it, only to find it was unavailable again.
“I repeatedly looked at the website on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 and every time I logged on it showed that the site was down for maintenance,” said Dunn, whose daughter is a freshman at Kenyon College.
On Tuesday, Dunn checked the website again and saw a screen that indicated it was busier than normal. After 20 minutes, both she and her daughter were able to access the application. They found it quicker and easier than in the past.
The beta testing-like process has complicated financial aid advisors’ communication with students, said Helen Faith, director of the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Usually, Faith’s team sends emails to let students know when they should start applying and what they should keep in mind for their application. But that’s been challenging this year.
“It’s not consistently available, it’s not consistently functioning correctly,” she said. “That makes it difficult for us to figure out how to best communicate with folks.”
In previous years, colleges would get information about students shortly after they started submitting the FAFSA in October. That meant students would receive their financial aid awards along with their acceptance letters in January. This year, colleges won’t receive FAFSA information until the end of January at the earliest. Faith said UW-Madison hopes to notify students about financial aid by March 31.
The Department of Education did not initially say when or for how long the application would be available. But the department announced on its social media Thursday that the application would be opened Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
People are using the #fafsa hashtag to share their experiences and frustrations on social media.
After Manal Ahmed Ali couldn’t access the FAFSA a few times, she went online and saw that many others were experiencing the same issues.
“It made me feel a bit better knowing that it wasn’t a problem just on my end, and maybe it was a problem with the FAFSA,” said Ahmed Ali, a high school senior from Chicago, Illinois.
Medha Kukkalli, a student at the University of Houston, was able to access to the application on Wednesday but decided not to submit the application immediately after reading about the issues. She and her mom decided to wait a couple of weeks in case of crashes or additional changes.
Katherine Beeman has tried at least 20 times to access the FAFSA application for her daughter.
“We’ve tried phones, laptops, and desktops. It’s just not been available any of the times we’ve tried,” said Beeman, a middle school teacher from Louisiana.
Beeman’s daughter is in her sophomore year of college and financial aid covers most but not all of her education, so Beeman needs to know how much she and her husband will have to contribute next year.
“I just need to get it done because if I have to supplement her aid, I need to plan ahead,” Beeman said.
To address the anxiety that Beeman and many others are feeling, Faith recommends that people avoid rushing to access the application. Since this year’s timeline has changed, financial aid offices from colleges won’t be receiving students’ information until the end of January anyway.
“Folks may want to go have a reminder on their calendar to check back in a few days rather than to try to get it right away,” she said. “They won’t be hurt and won’t be penalized for waiting a week or two or three into January to get that done.”
Dunn said the FAFSA process reminded her of Ticketmaster’s issues with concert tickets earlier this year. However, unlike getting tickets to see Taylor Swift, she said, everyone should get access to the FAFSA.