If you’re starting to think about how to cover the costs of higher education for yourself or your dependents, you should know that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that helps students qualify for federal student aid, including work-study programs, grants, and even federal student loans. You cannot qualify for any federal financial aid if you fail to fill out this form, and you need to file it for every year you or a dependent attends school.

While the FAFSA is free and filing it can help applicants get access to tens of thousands of dollars in student aid, many have long believed it is overly complicated. Fortunately, future college students and their families will see some changes this year and in subsequent years that can make filing the FAFSA easier.

Changes Coming To The FAFSA In 2022

The online FAFSA form is receiving a visual update that gives it a similar look and feel that puts it more in line with other tools featured on StudentAid.gov. A new simplified form being released in October of 2022 also has just 36 questions to answer, down from the 108 of previous years.

Applicants Can Select Their Role

With the updated FAFSA form coming out later this year, users filling out information can select their role in the application process from a few different options — parent, preparer, or student.

According to college and career consultant Milton Straham, III, this change is fairly minor. However, being able to select a role before filing the FAFSA has the potential to allow for a more user-friendly interface that can help reduce the number of mistakes

Federal Aid Eligibility For Students With Drug Convictions

Starting with the new FAFSA form that will be available in October of this year, drug convictions will no longer affect student eligibility to receive federal student aid. However, that doesn’t mean applicants won’t have to answer any questions about prior drug arrests, says Straham. According to studentaid.gov, students who complete the FAFSA will be asked whether they had a drug conviction for an offense that occurred while they were receiving federal student aid as part of the 36-question sequence.

“If the answer is yes, students will be provided a worksheet. Students should answer the questions correctly; however, the questions won’t impact students’ eligibility,” they write. According to financial advisor Michael Ryan, this is a major change that will remove a barrier to higher education for many students.

Financial Aid Regardless Of Selective Service Enrollment

Male applicants who fill out the FAFSA can also qualify for federal student aid even if they don’t register for Selective Service. However, students can still register through the FAFSA form. Straham calls this move “groundbreaking” since it ensures a larger number of eligible students can qualify for financial aid for college.

Other Big FAFSA Changes On The Way

While the above information explains the main FAFSA changes you’ll see in place later this year, there are plenty of other, bigger changes coming to the FAFSA for the 2023-24 academic year and potentially the following year. Kate Montesano, who serves as the Hudson Valley Community College Director of Student Financial Services, says that these changes are welcomed since the process of applying for financial aid has been overwhelming and confusing for students.

“The simplification of the FAFSA form is long overdue,” she says, adding that the changes set forth for the 2023-2024 FAFSA aim to eliminate frustration and provide students with a faster, less confusing application process with more accurate results.

Some of the big changes FAFSA applicants will see in the coming years include the following:

Increased Access to Pell Grants: Future changes to the FAFSA will expand eligibility for Pell Grants to more students in general based on their family size and income compared to the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Also, students who are serving time in prison will no longer be ineligible for this type of aid.

According to education expert Bruce Hanson of First Choice Admissions, this “ensures that students incarcerated and with drug convictions are eligible for Pell Grants and other aid.”

Increased Income Protection Levels: The updated FAFSA will also increase income protection levels. Higher education expert Chad Dorman of Leonard Andrew Consulting says that the PIPA (Parental Income Protection Allowance) increases by 20% and the SIPA (Student Income Protection Allowance) increases by 35%. In terms of real-world application, Dorman says this increase could very well end up as thousands more in aid for some families.

Replacement of EFCExpected Family Contribution (EFC) is being replaced with something called the Student Aid Index (SAI) in the coming years. This new analysis removes the number of students in college from a single family from the calculation while streamlining eligibility for federal Pell Grants. In the meantime, applicants can show a minimum SAI of -$1,500, whereas the minimum EFC was $0. Dorman says that, unfortunately, this will not make the overall task easier to complete or make college more affordable for most people.

“But it does help to make the terminology less confusing and misleading,” he says.

Bottom Line

If you’re gearing up to fill out the FAFSA later this year, you will likely be in for less hassle and stress than you would be in previous years. However, it seems like more positive changes to the FAFSA are on the way within the next few years, which is a move many higher education experts agree is far past due.

“Eliminating factors that have previously been barriers to receiving aid is a critical step in helping more students achieve their educational goals,” says Bohannon.

That said, it’s important to remember that the FAFSA only unlocks access to federal student aid, and not to all kinds of public and private scholarship money, numerous grant opportunities, and private student loans. With that in mind, you should fill out the FAFSA for sure, but don’t forget to look for other ways to pay for college as well.