Delivering on long-awaited improvements, the Department of Education will soon release a streamlined version of its widely used college financial aid form, known as the FAFSA, to less than 20 questions that could take some people just 10 minutes to fill out, officials told ABC News.
The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which was reviewed exclusively by ABC News ahead of its launch date, will go live by Dec. 31, according to the Department of Education.
The current application includes over 100 questions and hasn't been significantly updated since the Reagan administration, but it has been under review for the last two years after Congress passed bipartisan legislation calling for it to be improved.
Education Department officials said the overhaul is an attempt to make the form more approachable so that more low-income and middle-income families can apply for and receive the college financial aid they qualify for -- which the complicated, burdensome questions on the current FAFSA can be a barrier to.
"The new FAFSA is going to be streamlined, simplified, faster, and it's going to be easier than ever for students to get the help that they need to pay for college," Department of Education Undersecretary James Kvaal said in an interview.
"The FAFSA is the first step in that journey for most students, and the form is going to be easier to fill out," he said.
The new application has been pared down to the fewest number of questions possible, officials who worked on the redesign said, and it pulls from information the government already has through the IRS to automatically input family income details.
The form will range from 18 questions, which could take about 10 minutes, to around 50 questions for more complicated financial situations, which could take around an hour, the Education Department officials estimated.
Those improvements to the form's accessibility, as well as changes to the formulas to allow more students to qualify for financial aid, will ultimately result in 610,000 new Pell grants being awarded to students from low-income households, the Department of Education predicted.
Pell grants are given to low-income students that do not need to be repaid, unlike a loan.
"A lot of students who are eligible for Pell Grants never fill out the FAFSA, or they fill it out and are asked for supporting documentation like a tax return and fall out of the process," Kvaal said.
"So we think by simplifying the form, we are actually going to make it a lot easier for students to get those Pell grants and pay for college."
More than 1 million students are enrolled in college and eligible for a Pell Grant but haven't applied for one, Department of Education surveys have found.
The bureaucratic barriers that can be created by FAFSA have long been a thorn in the side of advocates attempting to get more aid to the students who need it, said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a nonprofit that serves financial aid employees at schools around the country.
"We know the No. 1 barrier that students and families cite for not attending college is affordability -- that it's too unaffordable," Draeger said.
"The entryway to all of that is the FAFSA, and so we want to make this form accessible to as many students and families as we can," he said.
Draeger and other advocacy groups were hoping to see the Department of Education roll out the new form earlier in the academic year, in line with the October launch date for the FAFSA in recent years, giving families a chance to take advantage of the promised improvements in the college application process for the 2024-2025 school year.
Already, the delay in the new form meant that students who already applied to schools under early decision processes, for example, might not now be able to use the new form to apply for their financial aid packages.
But for young people applying for colleges with later deadlines, including in January, the new form will still be available to them in time, Draeger said, and it's important that students fill them out as soon as possible.
The downside to submitting aid forms later, he said, is that it can mean there's less money available from the institutions -- and that families have less time to plan their finances.
Leaving ample time for financial planning was another concern in the rollout process, as advocacy groups were also hoping for a quicker timeline for data transfer of FAFSA applications from the Department of Education over to colleges, so schools can use student information to create their financial aid offers. But that transfer process is currently estimated to begin in January, weeks after the new application launches, the Department of Education announced on Wednesday.
"We urge our federal partners to do all they can to provide applicant data to institutions as quickly as possible, and to clearly communicate with schools as soon as updates are available," Draeger said.
Draeger said any significant delays in delivering applicant data to schools "would fall short of the spirit of the law, leaving the most vulnerable student populations in limbo as they wait for the financial aid information they need to make vital college-going decisions."