Credit: College Now Greater Cleveland

A new year is bringing long-requested changes to a federal financial aid form that can help students and families get state and federal money for college. 

But so far, the early national rollout of the FAFSA – which officially stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – has encountered some challenges. Students and families across the country have faced long online wait times and system glitches, among other things, as they try to complete the form. 

The new FAFSA was released Dec. 30 and was in a temporary “soft launch” phase. That ended Jan. 8, and now, the form is open 24/7,  according to the U.S. Department of Education.    

Here in Cleveland, the biggest roadblock Kate Schwab and her team at College Now Greater Cleveland were encountering during those first few days was predicting when the form was actually available and working.

Schwab, College Now’s senior director of advising programs and services, said the college access group held two workshops last week where officials “had zero issues getting on.”  The script flipped a few days later, on a Saturday, when no one could log on.  

“We want to just keep putting it out there: Don’t lose patience,” Schwab said about the group’s message to students and families.

Read on for some additional takeaways.

Charting the FAFSA timeline

The annual process traditionally begins in October, kicking off an admissions timeline for those filing as well as for officials at the colleges, universities, and approved trade programs where they enroll. 

College Now is encouraging local residents to file now. That’s especially true for those they’re working hands-on with, either directly in Northeast Ohio’s schools or at local workshops the group is hosting (more on that below). 

Some people already completed the form, Schwab said, adding that, for those who encountered no issues, it took about 20 minutes from start to finish. One of the biggest changes to the form is fewer questions compared to previous iterations.  

“When we have these opportunities to work together, let’s just see if we can get on it, and get through it, and get it completed,” Schwab said. “We don’t want to lose momentum.”

In the past, completion rates have been an early indicator of students showing up at college campuses in the fall. 

Remembering what money the FAFSA may get you 

Submitting the form gives students the chance to be eligible for money at both the state and federal levels. 

That includes the Pell Grant, which is earmarked for students with the biggest financial needs and doesn’t have to be paid back. 

Another big change this year is expanded eligibility for those grants. Federal officials estimated about 610,000 new students from low-income backgrounds will now be eligible.

Congress is in charge of setting the amount of the grant each year. It has not done so for the upcoming academic year. Last year, though, the awards’ maximum amounts came in at $7,395 per student. 

In the Buckeye State, Ohio’s deadline for filing to be eligible for any type of state-based aid is Oct. 1, 2024.  

Higher education institutions may use the form’s findings to award their own aid, too. This year, though, the U.S. Department of Education says those places won’t receive the information until the end of January. 

Get FAFSA help from College Now  

The organization is hosting the following workshops at their downtown office as well as at several Cuyahoga County library branches. 

  • Jan. 20, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. : FAFSA completion workshop at College Now, 1500 West 3rd Street, Suite 125, Cleveland (register here)  
  • Jan. 24, 5 p.m. – 7 p.m., Cuyahoga County Public Library – Brooklyn  (register here)
  • Jan. 25, 6:30 p.m. – 7 p.m., Lorain Public Library – Avon Library (register here)
  • Jan. 31, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m., Cuyahoga County Public Library –  Parma Heights (register here)
  • College Now is also offering several upcoming online training sessions. Find out more by visiting this link.

Update: This story was updated Jan. 9 to reflect that the FAFSA is now out of its “soft launch” period.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.