How are we going to afford college? It’s a crucial question in many households these days—and now a crucial response is transpiring in the world of higher ed financial aid: The FAFSA Simplification Act, authorized in 2022, will be fully implemented in time for the 2024–25 school year. “It is the most significant change in financial aid administration” since 1992 when federal aid was separated from institutional methodology, says Gail Holt, Amherst’s Dean of Financial Aid since 2013. Holt is also the chair of the FAFSA Simplification Implementation Working Group, an organization made up of 13 financial aid administrators from across the country. After 25-plus years of work in this arena, at Northeastern University, Mount Holyoke College and elsewhere, Holt still loves “helping families demystify the process.” And here she demystifies these changes for us, too.
Q: What are a few of the key components of the FAFSA Simplification Act?
A. It seeks to make the process of applying more seamless for students and families by shortening and simplifying the actual application. The federal methodology has also been amended to make it more predictable so students can know about their eligibility in advance. The calculation for eligibility for the Pell Grant is now rooted in the Federal Poverty Index and family size. Many other elements of the federal calculation, too, have changed and now most of the information is coming from IRS data, which simplifies for families the information they need to bring to the table.
Q: What is the purpose of the Implementation Working Group?
A. I see us as a critical bridge between the regulatory body of the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office—which has to do all of the heavy lifting of restructuring the application, rebuilding the technical components of the calculations and processing the applications—and the financial aid community of more than 29,000 professionals at nearly 3,000 institutions across the country. This community brings a great deal of expertise about what financial aid administrators need in order to serve students well, and, from practical experience, how the actions that the Department of Education takes are going to impact those administrators and students. Our role as the bridge is to facilitate communication in both directions.
Q: How do you see this FAFSA overhaul impacting your work in the coming years?
A. From a student standpoint, it is going to change the experience fundamentally. So our communication with families about how to navigate the financial aid process will shift and evolve. From my perspective, having had experience and comfort with the federal methodology that has existed for a very long time, there will be a lot of learning new things and staff training, including new eligibility qualifications and how to determine expected family contribution. Amherst is fortunate in that 95 percent of the money that Amherst students receive each year comes from the College; only about 5 percent comes from federal and state sources. So, for Amherst, that piece of it will not feel so imbalanced. But across the nation, there will be many different experiences because institutions are resourced very differently. I think there will be reverberations felt when it comes to students who are applying to many schools. We will remain strong in our commitment to need-based aid, to meeting full need, to being need-blind. There will still be challenges ahead—but we have the resources to uphold that commitment.