The new FAFSA, the key to unlocking financial aid dollars for college, went live Jan. 8 after a bumpy nine-day soft launch. Despite occasional glitches, the new system seems to be living up to its promise of being faster and simpler to fill out.

The U.S. Department of Education announced that more than 1 million students successfully submitted their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, during the early release period that started Dec. 30. Now the form is accessible around the clock.

One of those students was Hector Espinoza, a senior at Del Valle High School. He said that his school counselor encouraged students before their winter break to be ready to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible to be among the first in line for the more than $150 billion in grants, work-study funds and federal student loans.

Espinoza, 17, had limited success with the website the weekend of Dec. 30, but was able to complete his portion of the “Better FAFSA” the afternoon of Jan. 4 with relative ease. He alerted his mother, Vanessa Sepulveda, that it was her job to complete the form, which she did that evening.

“It felt good to get the FAFSA out of the way,” he said from his home on the 3100 block of Tierra Tuna on the Far East Side. “I knew (FAFSA) was pretty important. That money will help me to start college.”

The new FAFSA should make more students eligible for federal student aid, such as Pell Grants, a federal need-based program that awards millions of dollars to students annually. The education department said that 610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds, including more than 51,000 Texans, could benefit.

Sepulveda said that she finished her part of the form in about 10 minutes and was shocked to have completed it so quickly. The form was streamlined to just 36 questions from 108. It was also made easier to import income data from IRS tax records with the permission of the parent or spouse.

Sepulveda thought that she might have missed something, so she asked her son to join her and they logged back in only to find an electronic message that their application was completed.

The single mother of two, a fifth-grade teacher at Pebble Hills Elementary School, said that she hoped that her son, who wants to major in nursing, would receive as much financial aid as possible. He juggles classes with a part-time library assistant job at a Lower Valley elementary school.

Karen McCarthy, an official with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the ripple effect of the delayed launch of FAFSA will include slower responses from colleges and their financial aid offers. (Photo courtesy of NASFAA)

The application process “was a little frustrating at first, but I wasn’t too worried,” Sepulveda said. “In the end, I was satisfied. Now I’m excited to see if he gets something. Anything will help.”

Karen McCarthy, vice president of Public Policy and Federal Relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said that the experiences of Sepulveda and Espinoza are typical of many of the people who have used the new FAFSA. Some users have no problems while others experience a few glitches.

McCarthy encouraged students to fill out the FAFSA because even if their application is rejected, the information could be used to take out a student loan. She also tells students to know the priority submission deadlines, which each state determines.

Texas, which usually has a Jan. 15 deadline, has extended it to March 15. The priority deadline means that all applications submitted by that time will be given the same consideration.

“It’s not first-come, first-served,” she said during a telephone interview.

McCarthy also mentioned that families should expect delays as the DOE processes the FAFSAs and sends them to the colleges and universities that the students requested on their forms. The timeline for when the institutions will receive the FAFSAs is unclear this year, but people familiar with the process, which usually takes a few days, believe institutions will begin to receive FAFSA forms in late January.

Students can expect to get their aid offers in February or March.

Amanda Vasquez-Vicario, vice president for Enrollment Management at the University of Texas at El Paso, said her office’s main message to families is to not worry if they cannot access the application immediately. She said UTEP and other higher education institutions, in collaboration with community partners, have scheduled FAFSA Nights for late January and into February to help walk people through the application process.

“We still have plenty of time,” Vasquez-Vicario said.

Amanda Vasquez-Vicario, vice president for Enrollment Management at UTEP, said the university is working with community partners to schedule FAFSA Nights to help families with the application process. This photo is from August 2022. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

The UTEP official shared that students who submit their FAFSA by the March deadline will have a better chance of earning a Paydirt Promise, a UTEP initiative where eligible students with family incomes of $80,000 or less could attend the university without having to pay tuition and mandatory fees. That program utilizes state funding.

As for students or parents who are undocumented, she had a couple of suggestions. Those students can fill out a Texas Application for State Financial Aid, or TAFSA. Parents who are undocumented but have current or future college students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents can follow a procedure to get a Federal Student Aid ID that will allow them to fill out the FAFSA, or they can print out the 2024-25 form as a PDF, fill it out and mail it.

Vasquez-Vicario said that she understands that there is a lot of anxiety about immigration status so her representatives remind families that the information that her office receives will not be shared for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

Regardless of the hurdles, she encouraged students to fill out the FAFSA.

“If they don’t apply for financial aid to which they are entitled, it could affect their degree progression,” Vasquez-Vicario said.   

Meanwhile, back at his home on the far East Side, Espinoza, the Del Valle senior, encouraged his peers to fill out their FAFSA.

“It’s free money,” he said.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.