Unable to fill out your FAFSA? ‘Don't panic,' expert says—here's why you might not be able to access it

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Just before its Dec. 31, 2023 deadline, the Department of Education "soft-launched" the updated Free Application for Federal Student Aid

The FAFSA's long-awaited makeover has been underway since Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020. Some of the changes, like removing the requirement for male students to enroll in the selected service, already went into effect with last year's application. But the shorter, easier-to-complete form is now partially available for the 2024-25 school year. 

If you visit the Federal Student Aid website in these early days, though, you may have trouble submitting the form

On Jan. 4 and 5, the application will be available from 8am to 8pm Eastern Time, FSA said in a tweet. FSA will be monitoring the updated process and addressing any issues. So far, the form has only been available during certain time periods, the schedule for which have been announced periodically.

"Even by soft-launch standards, this weekend's rollout was challenging," Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said in a statement on Tuesday. "Students, families, and financial aid administrators who have been waiting for this release for months are understandably frustrated."

If you're trying to secure aid to fund your education in the coming school year, it's a good idea to keep an eye on these updates and know when you're able to file your FAFSA. It's unclear when these technical difficulties will be fully worked out.

Here's what we know so far.

'Just keep trying'

In normal years, financial aid administrators recommend students and their families submit their FAFSA — which typically opens in October — as soon as possible in order to maximize the aid package they're offered because some states and institutions offer grants and aid on a first come, first served basis. 

That advice still holds true, but with the bumpy rollout of the new FAFSA, you might not be able to access the form as early as you'd like. Broadly, though, people shouldn't be panicking yet, Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at NASFAA, tells CNBC Make It.

"Yes, deadlines are looming; yes, if you need to make decisions about where you're going to attend, I get it— this is frustrating and stressful and you're worried. [But] you shouldn't be," she says. "If you can't get into the FAFSA right now, just keep trying. It's still important to try to get it done quickly."

While you have the entire 2024-25 school year — until June 30, 2025 — to submit the FAFSA to be considered for federal aid, your state or college will likely have an earlier deadline. You'll want to be aware of any upcoming deadlines relevant to your situation in case you need to be extra vigilant about filing as soon as you can.

The good news is that the application is getting "more stable," Desjean says, as the window of time when the FAFSA has been open has continued to expand each day during the soft launch period.

"I think the best advice is, don't panic, but don't forget about it either," she says. "Definitely try to get it done as quickly as you can, but if you can't, don't give up."

Aid packages may be delayed as well

Even if you're able to access the FAFSA in the coming days, you probably won't receive a financial aid offer from your institution for a few weeks. 

Normally, after you file your FAFSA, your institution receives the information within a few days, Desjean says. But during this soft launch, FSA won't start sending completed FAFSA information to schools until the end of January, the department said.

"You will have ample time to fill out the form and do not need to rush to complete the form during the soft launch," according to the FSA website.

Whenever you're able to fill out the FAFSA, though, Desjean is looking forward to a better experience than users have had in previous years. These delays are due to improvements, such as implementing a tool to allow FAFSA applicants to automatically import information from the Internal Revenue Service, "which basically removes the hardest questions," she says.

"The new FAFSA is going to be good once the site is stable," Desjean says. "As far as the actual experience of going in there and filling out a form once the department works out all these bugs, I hope it is going to be a much smoother experience for applicants and less fraught with worry."

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