Now or Never: The FAFSA Simplification Tips and Tricks We Collected and Compiled

Amy Jenkins
October 26, 2023

There were many ways to celebrate Financial Aid Day and ours was a bit accidental.  When we planned to host a webinar with Brenda Hicks (Southwestern) and Michelle Rhodes (GVSU) we didn’t realize the importance of the day.  But what better way to celebrate than by sharing learnings, tips and tricks designed to make everyone’s lives easier?

If you missed the original, you can find the recording here.  But we know that even if you made it, it was a lot to take in!  So keep reading and check out our takeaways and resources below.

Be Proactive and Positive

Both Michelle and Brenda mentioned returning students are more likely to have questions and concerns than new ones (after all, unless prospective students have an older sibling, they’ve never seen a FAFSA before anyway) and while it is important to be prepared and to be proactive; there is no reason to incite panic.  Focus on what information students need, and leave out anything that creates extra noise or might lead to unnecessary concerns.  This matters in how we all, as leaders,  talk too.  Did you notice our slide didn’t say the FAFSA was delayed? We just said, “now it's ready in December.”  A positive framing can go a long way!

Create a Committee

Brenda and Michelle both talked about the taskforces they created and their team-based approach to getting the work done.  Figure out who the most important stakeholders are, create a learning agenda and set up time to collaborate.  It is hard to imagine a week going by where there isn’t something you can work on together.

Stick to the Source

While there is a lot we do not yet know, ED and NASFAA have both shared some helpful resources.  And going straight to the source is a tried and true tactic. Michelle shared how her team debated how a student might determine which parents to include on the FAFSA…and then realized they could check the “wizard” and check it out.  And this FAFSA prototype is a great way to see how a student or family will experience it.

Train as a Team

Both Brenda and Michelle, as well as a few webinar participants, mentioned watching trainings together.  It helps when everyone can hear the same things and discuss.  Debriefing helped to build everyone’s knowledge, reduce confusion, and bring the teams together.  We also loved hearing from Julie about her task force that brought in IT early…and has held meetings with themes and costumes to liven it up! And Janet who is doing SAI hand calc sessions with her team.

Mess with your Muscle Memory

The phrase we heard more than once was “you have to retrain your brain!.”  It is so hard to go from being an expert to feeling like it is hard to answer anyone else’s questions, and most financial aid staff are struggling with this now.  Start focusing on what you know and getting your brain to use the new terms and consider the new processes.   Hang up post-it notes, create lists and practice with your teammates.  One I can’t get right? The new term for FSA ID.  

Assemble Assets

Create a folder where you track all of the changes (thanks for the idea Nick!). Confused about the terminology? Create a crosswalk between the current FAFSA language and what we will see in 24-25. (This sheet of terms from NASFAA might be a good start). Thinking about how to handle student concerns or requests? Make a document with some standard answers that everyone can use.

Put in Place Protocols and Policies

Obtaining IRS data requires new levels of security and vigilance. While IT support may well be required for full protection, there are simple things too: make sure to lock your screen when you leave your desk, password protect your computer and take it home and lock it away at the end of the day.

And what about those PJs? Someone asked for Brenda’s plan and we’ve got it here:

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

We could do an entire webinar on communications (actually, should we? Let me know!) but for now here are some the ideas and examples:

  • Create a newsletter for staff at your school…or anyone that wants to learn more  (thanks Jill!)
  • Develop an internal website…as well as one for students and families.  FAQ style seemed to be the most popular approach (ask Steve if Meadow can create one for you!)
  • Create a Financial Aid Awareness committee to keep everyone apprised of changes, start changing the language and the culture and give them a chance to learn about FAFSA simplification.  At one school this group meets once / month (thanks Shannon!)
  • Talk to high school counselors and recruiters who go to high schools about the FAFSA delay - make sure they have the info they need (a cheat sheet can be helpful here).  And focus on the FSA ID!
  • Present at financial aid nights (here is Brenda’s most recent deck and here is one from NASFAA)
  • Start conversations with returning students who may have big changes early so you can figure out how to support them (thanks Rachael!)
  • Arm your office with email templates and resources to communicate with current and prospective students (hint, they need to know very different things).  Check out lots of templates here.

Getting to hear Brenda and Michelle’s “practical and tactical tips” for the new FAFSA probably would have been enough - but we are so glad we asked you all to contribute.  We loved the ideas and would love to keep them coming.  Have a resource we didn’t link? Send it on over!  We are here to support the community.

And speaking of support…we put our whole team against making sure that our modern NPC could calculate SAI as well as EFC - so that you have one less thing to worry about.  Ready to make the shift? Us too.  Reach out and we can get you SAI compliant in no time.  It’s about time things felt simpler.

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