In May 2015, the US Department of Education announced that it would sunset its old e-signature system for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and replace it with a new system to authenticate FAFSA information.
But the new system is apparently causing confusion and frustration among students.
Students who want to apply for most federal and state financial aid for higher education in the US must fill out a FAFSA by midnight March 2 (that’s tonight, if you’re a teen or if you have a teen applying to college).
But filling out the form is not an easy process for students or their parents, who must also be registered with the Department of Education if the student can be claimed as a dependent.
The change that the Department of Education implemented was a seemingly small one, but it’s created some friction that wasn’t there before, the Los Angeles Times reported. Previously, students and parents had to apply for a Federal Student Aid PIN with their social security number to access their FAFSA online.
If they later forgot their PIN, they had to recover it by reentering a social security number as well as a corresponding name and date of birth. Now, students and parents must create a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID), which allows users to access their FAFSA information through a user name and password.
The setup of a FSA ID also requires that students and parents have social security numbers as well as a valid e-mail addresses.
In explaining the reason for the change, the Department of Education wrote, “Having a username and password is much more secure than a PIN that you enter in conjunction with personally identifiable information (your Social Security number, name, and date of birth).
The fewer times you have to enter personally identifiable information over the Internet, the safer you are.”
While the change should have been simple, one survey from Get Schooled, an education hub geared towards students and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that approximately one in five high school seniors said they had problems signing up online, either because they were getting error messages or because they weren’t sure of the steps they had to take to sign up. According to the Los Angeles Times, high school counselors are also reporting that students are having trouble navigating the creation of an FSA ID.
“I am just so confused about FSA ID,” one student told Get Schooled, according to the Times.
Another said, “I could set not up a FSA ID, I got so many error messages so I had to mail it.”
Because of the importance of the approaching deadline, the Times reported that “Officials are asking students to submit even an incomplete FAFSA immediately, so that they make the deadline but can fill in more information later.”
On the Department of Education’s blog post regarding the change to FSA IDs, parents and students are complaining en masse about confusing instructions and not being able to login to the system with the username and password they created.
As one parent complains:
Ok so I’m a parent who FINALLY got the FSA ID thing to work.
I am now verified. However, now it says ONLY a student should log in using the FSA ID so why did I have to go through all of this to get one?? How do I now log into the system?? I simply wanted to use the Data Retrieval tool through the IRS to verify my information as my son’s application was chosen for “verification”. When I enter his name, birthdate etc it takes me to his fafsa page that says it’s been processed but from there I cannot make changes…
Another student rants:
This new process is absolutely ridiculous! I have tried to create my FSA ID and it says that my id is not linked.
I set it up correctly and verified my email with the code and it won’t let me in.
Today is the cutoff to get this submitted and I have spent hours trying to sign in and then more hours on the phone trying to get a rep.
Yet another commenter posted:
I am a student success adviser for the Iowa College Access Network. We provide free FAFSA assistance for parents and students.
I had a parent in today. Her FSA ID did not work and we set one up for her husband and his did not work. How do we fix a FSA ID that does not work? It said that the ID did not match information on file.
Also during the session, it said a problem may have occurred due to maintenance.
The Department of Education offers an 800-number that students and parents can call if they run into problems they can’t seem to fix.
But college-prep forums have commenters complaining of excessive wait times to speak to personnel that can help them. Once they do get the right people on the line, resolutions can be as simple as “you thought the form to set up a FSA ID was asking for your child’s date of birth but it was actually asking for your own date of birth” to “we’re not sure how to fix this, send in a paper copy of the FAFSA.”
Kim Cook, director of the National College Access Network, told the Los Angeles Times that overall, the change to FSA ID is a good thing that will help protect students’ identifying information, but she said she wished the Department of Education had made setting up an FSA ID more user-friendly.
Besides functional issues with the new system that students are reporting, the new requirement for an e-mail address could put a stumbling block in the way of poorer families whose parents might not have e-mail addresses.
And the Department of Education reminds students that an FSA ID constitutes a “legal signature,” and students should not set one up for their parents, yet another barrier to getting students to file complete information.
Similarly, the requirement for a Social Security Number has slowed the processing of applications from students whose parents are immigrants under both the PIN and FSA ID systems.
If a student has a social security number but their parents do not, the student must mail in a paper copy of the FAFSA, which adds a hurdle to applying for financial aid.
And for marginalized students, financial aid is sometimes the only way they’ll be able to attend college at all.
Ars has contacted the Department of Education for more information on whether the FSA ID requirement is slowing down FAFSA processing and we will update when we’ve received a response.