College Financial Aid for 2024: FAFSA Delay Could Be Worse With Government Shutdown

The federal student aid application for the 2024-2025 school year won't open on Oct. 1 as usual.

Peter Butler Writer
Peter is a writer and editor for the CNET How-To team. He has been covering technology, software, finance, sports and video games since working for @Home Network and Excite in the 1990s. Peter managed reviews and listings for Download.com during the 2000s, and is passionate about software and no-nonsense advice for creators, consumers and investors.
Expertise 18 years of editorial experience with a current focus on personal finance and moving
Peter Butler
8 min read
FAFSA and a graduation cap sketched in a notebook in front of money and a calculator

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Andrii Dodonov/Getty Images

Oct. 1 traditionally marks the beginning of the open enrollment period for FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's always a good idea to complete FAFSA as early as possible, since funds for students are limited, but there's a catch this year: A redesigned FAFSA form isn't ready to launch in October. 

Money Tips logo

Enrollment for FAFSA for the 2023-24 school year remains open until June 30, 2024, but the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office has said that the application for the 2024-25 school year will not be ready until December 2023 at the earliest. A shutdown of the federal government could delay the launch even further.

Read more: Best Credit Cards for Students

Learn what's changing with FAFSA, what information you need to apply, and why it's still a good idea to complete your FAFSA form as early as possible.

For more, learn how the government shutdown could impact your federal student loan payments.

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA is the federal government form that students, their families, their school counselors or paid preparers complete to determine eligibility for financial assistance for college or graduate school. There are no income restrictions for FAFSA -- everyone can apply.

Federal money from FAFSA comes in the form of direct aid, grants, loans and work-study funds. States and colleges also use the information from FAFSA to make decisions about their own grants and scholarships.

To complete the FAFSA form, you'll need to create an account on the Federal Student Aid site. If you're a dependent student, a parent or guardian must create an account too. Record your account credentials somewhere safe -- including your login information and a "save key" -- you'll need them to apply for financial aid every year.

The FAFSA form itself has multiple sections -- including student information, financial information and parent/guardian information. The Education Department says that most people complete the form in less than an hour. And you can save your work in a section if you can't complete it in one go.

Completing FAFSA online is the easiest way to get it done, but you can also download a PDF form to print, complete and mail. The 2023-24 PDF form is still available, but the 2024-25 form will not be ready until at least December.

How is FAFSA changing for 2024-25?

The 2024-25 FAFSA form will complete a series of changes for the federal student aid application that began in 2021-22. These revisions aim to make the form simpler and connect it to IRS records for easier financial verification. 

The changes to the 2024-25 FAFSA form stem from two pieces of federal legislation -- the Future Act of 2019 and the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2021. The FSA has been implementing changes since 2021-22, including the elimination of restrictions on applicants who didn't register for Selective Service or have drug convictions, ending the ban on Pell Grants for confined or incarcerated applicants, and instituting accommodations for homeless students, foster youth and other applicants with unusual circumstances.

The biggest changes for FAFSA, however, are coming with the 2024-25 form. The new FAFSA form aims to streamline the application process, expand eligibility and improve the online experience of applying for financial aid.

Most notably, the new FAFSA form for 2024-25 is a lot shorter than previous years. Instead of 108 sections, there will be only 46 on the new form, and some students will need to complete even fewer sections. Also, anyone who contributes financial information for the form will now need to create their own FSA account and provide consent to pull their federal tax information from the IRS Direct Data Exchange.

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be eliminated and replaced with a Student Aid Index (SAI) that will be calculated differently to allow financial aid administrators to better recognize students most in need. The number of family members in college won't be a factor in determining SAI, as it was with the EFC.

Starting in 2024-25, the FSA will also adjust the calculation of Pell Grants to allow more students to be eligible for the maximum amount. Students from families earning less than 175% or from single parents earning less than 225% of the federal poverty level will now automatically be awarded the maximum Pell Grant. 

Along with those big changes, the new FAFSA form will include support for 11 languages instead of only English and Spanish. It will also increase the number of colleges that students can include from 10 to 20 when using the online form. (The printed PDF form will allow only 10.) In cases of divorce or separation, the parent responsible for FAFSA will now be the one who contributed most financially to the student, not the one who lived with the student the most. Finally, families must now report small businesses or family farms as assets.

To see what the new 2024-25 form may look like, take a look at the draft version (PDF) that was approved in March 2023.

Who should apply for FAFSA?

Everyone planning to attend college or graduate school next year should apply for financial aid via FAFSA. There are no income limits for qualifying for federal student aid, and it costs nothing to apply.

The National College Attainment Network estimates that $3.75 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed in the 2020-21 school year because eligible students didn't apply for FAFSA.

Even if you believe that your family's income or wealth will disqualify you for financial aid, you should still submit the FAFSA application. Some colleges and universities will use the data from FAFSA to award their own scholarships. You'll also need to file FAFSA to qualify for federal student loans, if you're not eligible for other aid.

More than 200 schools -- many private but not all -- also require students requesting financial aid to complete the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile. Each school has its own deadline for filing the CSS Profile, but it usually opens on the same date as FAFSA's usual launch date -- October 1.

Why should I complete the FAFSA form early?

The biggest reason to file FAFSA early is that there is a limited amount of federal student aid, and it can sometimes be distributed on a "first come, first serve" basis. 

Money set aside for grants, work-study funds and merit scholarships can run out. If you wait until the end of the enrollment period, you could miss out on available funds that you could have qualified for earlier.

The Federal Student Aid office will process your FAFSA application in about three to five days. Paper applications take seven to 10 days. Information from FAFSA then will be shared with your selected schools, and you will learn your school's financial aid award decision shortly after receiving your acceptance letter.

Soon after processing your FAFSA form, the FSA will send you a Student Aid Report, which includes your eligibility for Pell Grants and, most important, your Expected Family Contribution. The info on your Student Aid Report, particularly your EFC, is essential in helping you plan how to pay for higher education. The sooner you get it, the better.

Filing FAFSA early can also make comparing colleges easier. Once your FAFSA form is processed, your information will be shared with all of the colleges and universities listed on your form. 

Getting your application in early means that the colleges making an acceptance offer are able to provide financial aid information earlier, letting you better compare schools if you receive multiple offers.

Even if you're not sure where you want to go to college, you should file FAFSA early. You can list 10 colleges with the current application when you initially apply, but you can later change your application after you complete it to include different schools.

You'll have more time to appeal financial aid awards

Offers of financial aid from schools are just offers. You can accept all of the aid or part of the aid, or ask the school for more money. Schools generally provide their best offers to start, but if your family's financial situation has changed -- such as with a death or loss of a job -- it's worth amending your FAFSA form and appealing a school's decision.

You might also appeal a financial aid award if one school has offered you much more aid than another. Every school has its own process for appealing financial aid awards. Email the school's financial aid office to learn the details of its appeals process.

States have their own deadlines 

Many state deadlines for financial aid applications are earlier than the federal deadline. The FSA website has a complete list of state deadlines for 2023-24, and we expect the site will add deadlines for 2024-25 once the new FAFSA form is released.

The earliest current state deadline is Texas, which has a Jan. 15, 2024, deadline for "priority consideration." It's not certain yet if states will adapt their deadlines to account for the delayed FAFSA form for 2024-25. Other states have deadlines in February and March of 2024. Rather than worrying about your own state deadline, complete your FAFSA form as soon as possible.

Some financial aid does not run out

It's important to note that Pell Grant funds do not run out. Everyone who qualifies for a federal Pell Grant will get the full amount they are eligible for, regardless of when they apply.

The same goes for student loans. If you want to take out federal student loans, you'll need to complete the FAFSA form, but your eligibility for loans won't be affected by the date of your application.

Collect the info you need for FAFSA ahead of time

FAFSA requires a good amount of personal and financial information, so it's best to get all your relevant documents together before you start filling out the form. Here's what you'll need:

  • Your Social Security number (or Alien Registration number if you're not a US citizen)
  • Your federal income tax return
  • Your W-2 form and all records of income earned
  • All bank statements and investment statements
  • Any records of untaxed income
  • Federal Student Aid ID (which you get when you create your online account)

If you are a dependent student, you'll need to get all of that information for your parents or guardians as well. 

Starting with 2024-25 school year, you won't need to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import your federal tax data. With the current form, you can either use the tool to populate the IRS information or enter the information yourself. The new form will require that all contributors consent to automatic IRS data integration.

Even if you don't apply for FAFSA early, apply by the deadline

Now would be a good time to mention that FAFSA enrollment for the current school year, 2023-24, is still open until June 30, 2024. If you're in college or graduate school this year, and you haven't filed your FAFSA form, do it now.

For more Money tips, learn the best day to fly for cheap airfare and how to save money at the gas pump.