Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The application window for U.S. students to file for government student aid has opened, and education officials say they have eased the notoriously complex process -- even with several federal-level changes this academic year.
The U.S. Department of Education announced a number of changes to the application process for the 2019-20 academic year. The application window for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid opened Oct. 1 for the 2020-21 school year.
The department added features intended to better secure student privacy and make the process simpler by synchronizing application across the FAFSA website and "myStudentAid" mobile app.
"Improving students and families' experience with the FAFSA has been a key priority since day one," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. "With our transformative myStudentAid mobile app and customer-centric approach completing the FAFSA is now simpler, faster and more intuitive."
FAFSA offers both need- and non-need-based aid that pays for attendance, work-study, loans and other benefits based on several factors -- including the amount it costs a student to attend, family income, and assets.
Before, the entire process took about 90 minutes -- but the Education Department said it's now got it down to about an hour.
"Those who have never completed a FAFSA likely have heard stories about how difficult and time consuming it is to complete," said Rick Shipman, executive director of financial aid at Michigan State University.
"Well, things have changed."
First, students must create an ID at the FAFSA website to create and track the application. Personal and financial information for both students and parents is also needed, including driver's license and Social Security numbers, tax returns and bank and investment statements. The information is used to calculate the Expected Family Contribution -- the key number the government uses to decide how much aid it can offer.
Eventually, colleges subtract the EFC amount from tuition costs, living expenses and other related calculations to determine how much need-based aid a student qualifies for. Schools use a similar method to calculate non-need-based aid.
Common (and new) troubles
Elaine Rubin, a specialist for advocacy group Edvisors, said one of the main problems families always run into is keeping track of multiple and critical FAFSA deadlines -- confusion that can ultimately cost a student thousands of dollars in aid.
Rubin said some applicants often don't realize there are three separate deadlines -- one for the state, one for the school and one for the federal government -- and the aid is often given on a first come, first served basis. She says not all states and schools operate that way, but advises applicants to play it safe and apply early.
A new potential hangup this year involves Treasury plans to revamp and resize the 1040 tax form for 2020 -- a change that moves FAFSA-critical information onto six different forms. Lawmakers expressed concern in August about the change and its potentially harmful impact on the student loan process. They worried the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which is used to transfer key tax data to the FAFSA application, would no longer work.
"This will not only further complicate the FAFSA completion process for many families but will likely result in the submission of incomplete and inaccurate information," they wrote in a letter to DeVos and the IRS. New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan said the changes "disrupted functions" of the tool.
The data that was moved onto other forms to cut down the size of the 1040 -- required figures including capital gains, unemployment pay and interest deductions -- now have to be manually entered onto the FAFSA.
Nonetheless, an Education Department spokesperson told UPI it doesn't anticipate any trouble with federal student applications.
"Additional security and privacy protections have been added to address concerns that data from the tool could be used by identity thieves to file fraudulent tax returns," the IRS said. "The IRS Data Retrieval Tool remains the fastest, most accurate way to input your tax return information into the FAFSA form."
The department introduced multiple improvements this year to simplify applications, including one called "skip logic" -- a feature that lets students answer only questions relevant to their situation. Gone are the days of sifting through every question, unsure which are the ones you need to answer, education officials said.
The department says its myStudentAid app is another upgrade, which lets students to track the entire process and receive critical notifications when action is needed. By synchronizing it with the FAFSA website, applicants can now switch between the two without losing any data, or their place in the process. Social Security numbers are masked for privacy. Students will also be able to review their comprehensive Student Aid Report on the app.
Frank, a company that helps students with their FAFSA, said it expects to see fewer completed applications this year -- mainly because more are expected to go through the verification process, which is basically a school audit.
"This is a big step backward when it comes to college access," Frank CEO Charlie Javice told BuzzFeed.
The deadline for students to submit their federal applications is June 30, 2020.