Grading the FAFSA Roll-Out

The Department of Education underwent a complete overhaul of its Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online system to improve the user experience. The existing form consisted of 108 questions, and the Department saw that many applicants were abandoning the process out of frustration and confusion.

The FAFSA Simplification Act was passed in 2020. The act helped fund the work needed to simplify the form and update how aid was calculated. The system rolled out in December 2023, more than a year later than expected and at the height of college application season. While the new system did reduce the number of questions to a maximum of 36 and the intake of 3.1 million forms in the first month alone, the rollout has been marred by some glaring issues that have made the customer experience worse, not better, for many, already stressed college-bound students.

A for Integration and Personalization

One way the Department was able to reduce the sheer number of questions on the form was by allowing users to opt in to a direct transfer of their tax information from the IRS into the application. Integrating the IRS and education systems means that information is auto-populated, reducing manual effort and data entry errors.

The new form also adapts as people fill it out. Applicants now only see questions relevant to them based on the answers they've inputted. Some applicants will have to answer as few as 18 questions.

C for Funding

Department officials complained that the FAFSA overhaul was overshadowed by efforts to relieve student loan debt. That program pulled attention and funds from the FAFSA refresh. Updating the system proved to be more complicated as many of the systems used were 50 years old, requiring specialized knowledge and highly customized effort to modernize.

F for Formula Changes

Shortly before the roll-out, it was determined that the grant determination formula outlined by the 2020 legislation would offer grants to more low-income students but found the system was not ready to pay that level of aid. The formula had to be changed to ensure the viability of the Pell Grant program. Applicants who had pre-calculated what they would likely be awarded were caught off guard by the reality of their aid package.

While no rollout is bug-free, the timing of the FAFSA going live with the busy season for the application exacerbated the impact of routine technical glitches. Applicants already stressed due to the college decision process were vocal in their frustration with the system. However, there is great promise once the initial issues are addressed. The Secretary of Education testified before Congress that despite the rocky launch, the Department is seeing an increase in completed applications--up to 60-70% completed--which is a strong step toward the 90-95% goal.

Check out these resources to keep up with technology and CX efforts at the Department of Education and the federal government.

  • Modernization Best Practices: Learn from Leading Cities and Counties (June 5, 2024; webcast) - IT leaders from cities and counties explain how they're addressing technical debt, updating critical systems, and launching new services. This live webcast will reveal best practices and proven approaches to these vital issues from some of the nation's most innovative local government IT leaders.
  • Government Customer Experience & Engagement Summit (June 6, 2024; Washington, DC) - This event convenes top thought leaders and experts from government and industry to explore the state of government CX today and look ahead to the future. Participants will have the opportunity to follow two tracks - technology and culture. The technology track will engage you in conversation surrounding the digital transformation of CX and its challenges and opportunities, while also exploring the integration of new technologies. The culture track invites discussions on leadership, diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as the importance of cultivating a positive work environment.
  • ITModTalks (September 19, 2024, Washington, DC) - Join the top decision-makers from government and tech as they discuss ongoing efforts in federal IT modernization, the continued move to modern, cloud-based systems, and what is in store with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.
  • Imagine Nation ELC 2024 (October 27-29, 2024; Hershey, PA) - The government technology community comes together to discuss the issues facing government and work together to develop practical solutions and innovative strategies.
  • Elevating Government CX to Meet the Needs of Today's Digital Citizens (white paper) - The U.S. government has recently introduced initiatives to improve the customer experience (CX) toward its online public services. However, engineering teams intent on making government sites and user applications more user-friendly, trustworthy, and responsive face unique challenges.
  • How to Get Started Modernizing Government Legacy Systems (white paper) - Dealing with legacy code is a routine experience. Yet, the unknowns within the code pose significant risks. When the time comes to refresh or update technology, modernizing legacy systems can be daunting. Taking proactive steps enables organizations to navigate legacy system updates more easily, thus minimizing disruptions. Learn about the intricacies of legacy systems and effective methods for controlling them.
  • Adapting to Change: Evolving Government in the Digital Age (white paper) - As technology accelerates and constituent demands increase, agencies face multifaceted challenges, including rapidly changing technology and an increased threat of cyber attacks. In a recent roundtable discussion, panelists representing various federal agencies discussed the opportunities and challenges facing government agencies in this transformation era.

For more on CX modernization in government explore GovEvents and GovWhitePapers.

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