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FAFSA Now Works for (Almost) All

The US Department of Education just announced that it made corrections on the FAFSA software to allow contributors without Social Security Numbers to use the online applications with two limitations.

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By MorraLee Keller, Senior Director, Strategic Programming, NCAN
Published March 13, 2024

After months of waiting and workarounds, the US Department of Education (ED) announced late Tuesday that it corrected the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to allow contributors without Social Security numbers (SSNs) to use the online application, with two limitations. In brief, the first is that student-contributor matching requires exact entry of personally identifiable information. The second is that the system cannot retrieve IRS data for those contributors, so they must enter their information manually. Please see additional details at the end of this post about this situation.

Apart from these identified issues, this ends significant frustration that many students and families from mixed-status families have experienced when attempting to complete the FAFSA online. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) encourages all eligible students to use the online FAFSA if they have not already filed a paper form or used the previously announced “workaround” process. Students and families who complete the online form should expect a FAFSA submission summary and Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) sent to their colleges around the end of March.

“Nearly half a million students from mixed status families have been waiting for full functionality so they too can realize the promise of the Better FAFSA,” NCAN CEO Kim Cook said. “We are relieved that most students can now submit the simpler online FAFSA and access the federal student aid for which they are eligible. This goes a long way to messaging that college is affordable and within reach, especially for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds and for those who will be the first in the family to go to college.”

ED also has begun, slowly, to process the approximately 5.58 million FAFSAs submitted since the launch date, as detailed in a second announcement. They will send batches of applicant data to state agencies and colleges as ISIRs over the coming weeks. Students could expect aid offers to begin arriving maybe as soon as mid-April.

Our work now turns to catching up on FAFSA completion that still lags 34 percentage points behind this time last year for high school seniors. This shortened timeframe to complete FAFSAs demands Herculean efforts from program advisors and school counselors to help students and families complete the form and then later understand aid offers with just a few weeks before the end of the school year.

NCAN is here to help with these system updates, our Better FAFSA toolkit and FAFSA Tracker to monitor submission rates by state and high school. We will also share more about programming over the summer to continue needed support to ensure strong fall enrollment for all students.

For those seeking the more technical details, please keep reading for more about the resolution of several “known issues” with the online FAFSA as well as the long-awaited ISIR processing.

Regarding contributors without a SSN, the system is now accepting information for those without a SSN who have a verified FSA ID. This group of contributors can now log in and complete their section of the form or may start a form on behalf of their child. These fixes uncovered a couple of new issues that currently do not have a workaround or timeline for resolution. Per the announcement, these include:

  1. All users without an SSN, including those with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), must manually enter their financial information. All impacted users are encouraged to enter an ITIN into the FAFSA, if they have one. Once a permanent fix is identified and implemented, ED will attempt to retrieve federal tax information via the direct data exchange with the IRS and will reprocess the FAFSA, as necessary, to reflect any changes.
  2. Some applicants and their contributors encounter an error message when inviting contributors without an SSN to participate in their form. This occurs when there is a mismatch of personally identifiable information (PII) that is entered on the invitation compared to the PII attached to the contributor’s account, or the person sending the invitation to participate in the FAFSA form sends multiple invitations, often with different variations of PII. Right now, impacted families are advised to wait to invite any contributors without an SSN to their form. We are working to resolve this issue in the coming days and will provide updates as they are available.

For those students who used the recently announced workaround for this group of contributors, their FAFSA will be processed this month, and they will receive an email letting them know their FAFSA has been processed but is incomplete due to a missing signature(s). When the system allows corrections to begin to be made near the end of March, the contributors signatures who are missing should be able to log in and sign the FAFSA. This will result in the FAFSA being reprocessed with a calculated student aid index (SAI), the student will receive a second FAFSA Submission Summary, and colleges will receive an updated ISIR.

Beyond those from mixed-status families, the following known issues were also resolved with the update:

  • Students Unable to Save or Submit A FAFSA Form When Entering an Alien Registration Number That Ends in Zero
  • Some Students with A Date of Birth of 2000 Are Looped to Unusual Circumstances Page
  • Users With No-SSN Are Unable to Enter A FAFSA When Upgrading Their Limited Account to a Full FSA ID Account
  • Customers who Change Their Citizenship Status from Eligible Non-Citizen Are Unable to Submit an Application

An additional fix from last weekend included updating the tables for inflation used in the SAI calculation. As of the afternoon of March 8, FAFSA submission confirmation emails contain an accurate SAI for students that will match what appears on the FAFSA Submission Summary. Students submitting prior to that fix received a confirmation email with an “estimated” number that will likely be different on the FAFSA Submission Summary.

Lastly, 12 weeks after an already delayed start, FSA has begun to release a limited number of ISIRs to a small number of institutions. The volume of ISIRs will be ramping up this week with full distribution of the backlogged forms cleared within two weeks after that full ramp up. FAFSAs being submitted now are being moved to the end of the processing queue, and students will receive an email notifying them when it has been processed. The ultimate goal is to return FAFSA processing time to normal by the end of the month.

As ISIR generation got under way, there were additional issues identified that will need to be addressed:

  • For contributors who were required to individually report their financial data and the combined incomes exceeded the $60,000 threshold, the system was not incorporating the asset amount into the SAI calculation. This is being resolved as the FAFSA are being processed, which may result in the SAI appearing on the FAFSA Submission Summary to differ from the estimated one in the confirmation email the student received. In limited cases where the malfunction occurred, some may not have been presented with the asset questions and will need to report those when the system is available for corrections.
  • If the form is missing family size, an SAI will not be calculated and will need that information to be entered when corrections are available.
  • On certain internet browsers, the “My Activity” section of the dashboard does not load when a FAFSA application already exists for user. FSA suggests only using the recommended browsers: Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome.

NCAN encourages you to read both announcements to fully digest all the most recent updates and continue to monitor the FSA Knowledge Center for future updates.