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2025-26 FAFSA: What We've Learned and Our Recommendations

June 27, 2024
By Brendan Williams

2025-26 FAFSA: What We've Learned and Our Recommendations
The FAFSA rollout challenges made this an unprecedented year in financial aid. School counselors, college access providers, and financial aid administrators are still navigating the FAFSA changes and supporting students with a form that still doesn't work for all. Many students and families are disillusioned with the financial aid process, and as of June, FAFSA completion rates are 12.4% lower than last year. While the 24-25 FAFSA still needs our full attention, we must step back and ask what we have learned to inform how we best support students and families next year.

This blog is a starting point for that conversation and is not a comprehensive list of challenges and recommendations. There is still a significant amount to learn about next year. Two things we will assume (until we hear otherwise) are that FAFSA will open on October 1st, and it will mostly look the same, with fewer tech issues and an FSA ID process that works for everyone. Here are a few key learnings and what we're considering for next year.

FSA ID creation needs to happen early. Creating an FSA ID is the key to completing the form. It is best to navigate this process well before filling out the FAFSA to give time to resolve problems with the identity verification process. 

Recommendation: Anyone with an SSN should create FSA IDs over the summer. However, those without an SSN should wait to see if FSA will roll out a better process for confirming their identity. Once fall arrives, we recommend everyone create FSA IDs. 

Matching contributor information for successful invites is challenging. Having the correct information to invite contributors to the FAFSA can be difficult, especially for students who may not know their parent's FSA ID information. 

Recommendation: Whenever possible, have parent contributors start the FAFSA and invite the student to complete their section of the form. This can be a helpful strategy for family financial aid nights or FAFSA fill-in events with parents in attendance. If not possible, have the parent take a picture of their FSA ID information or write it down for their student so they have the exact correct information. Try using our FAFSA checklist.

The Direct Data Exchange (DDX) is easier but less transparent for students and families. After consenting, sharing tax information via the DDX is much easier and smoother than the previous IRS DRT. However, the federal tax information transferred from the IRS is hidden from those completing the FAFSA. Since they cannot see the shared financial information, students and families sometimes question whether DDX worked, what information is being used to calculate SAI, and whether their current family size matches the tax forms. 

Recommendation: Have students and families bring in their taxes when completing the FAFSA. Having tax forms on hand will allow them to see what information the IRS is using, check their family size against the tax forms, and provide a backup plan for manual entry in case there are issues with the DDX. 

Specific questions on the FAFSA require additional guidance. Questions about unusual circumstances, applying for direct loans only, and the net worth of small businesses and farms were incredibly challenging for students and their contributors.

Recommendation: Prepare students for the questions they'll see on the FAFSA. Review questions about dependency before starting the form so students know whether parent contributors will be required and what information must be provided. For asset questions, it can be helpful to direct families to professionals in your community who can give advice. 

The Student Aid Index (SAI) and its connection to financial aid requires explanation. Changing EFC to SAI has not clarified how financial need and federal eligibility are determined, and negative SAIs add to the confusion. 

Recommendation: Don't wait to discuss what students and families can expect throughout the financial aid process. It is helpful to lay the foundation for how the FAFSA works, why it is important, and what the SAI determines. Encourage students to review their FAFSA submission summary so they know their SAI going into financial aid offer season. 

The 24-25 FAFSA created an incredibly challenging financial aid process for everyone involved, but parts of the form showed promise of a better, simpler FAFSA. While we can hope for improvements for the 25-26 FAFSA and beyond, those supporting students must come together to ensure we provide the right support. If you are interested in debriefing the 24-25 FAFSA and planning for 25-26, sign up for one of our webinars to continue the conversation.