FAFSA changes focus of latest House Majority Policy hearing

Updates include new funding formula, application redesign

HARRISBURG, Feb. 20 – Changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and its impact on students was the subject of Wednesday’s House Majority Policy Committee hearing, hosted by Rep. Melissa Cerrato (D-Montgomery).

“The FAFSA is a free form that helps students looking to pursue higher education afford that opportunity. This application process should be as smooth and easy as possible, but I’ve heard concerns that the latest updates to this form are actually making it more difficult,” Cerrato said. “Today’s hearing gave us a great chance to hear directly from people who handle these applications daily, identify the issues, and discuss potential solutions.”

This overhaul is the result of the FAFSA Simplification Act, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The changes include less questions on the form, a new financial aid eligibility formula, a new definition of a contributor on the application, and expanded access to federal Pell Grants, among others. These changes also delayed the opening of FAFSA applications from October 1st to December 31st.

Patrick Brett, the Chair of the Guidance Department and Future Plans Counselor for North Penn High School, helps students and families navigate the FAFSA process. He testified that the changes are already having a negative impact.

“Timelines for students and parents have been disrupted due to the delayed FAFSA opening date, while alterations to the funding formula and application itself have introduced potential barriers to financial aid, leaving students and families with many uncertainties,” said Brett. “Reevaluation of certain changes may help alleviate the burdens faced by students and families in this critical aspect of their educational journey moving forward.”

Testimony at Wednesday’s hearing also featured remarks from Diona Brown, the Director of School Services for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. She agreed the redesign and implementation of the new FAFSA has had a bumpy start, but there are ways families can improve their experience. Brown suggested that families fill out the application together and students should create their Federal Student Aid ID days before attempting to fill out the form. She added that PHEAA is always available to help families complete the process.

“In addition to our more than 50 upcoming in-person FAFSA events across the state, we also offer numerous virtual sessions that are open to the public, which can be found on the PHEAA website. We’re committed to ensuring affordable access to higher education for Pennsylvanians,” Brown said. While acknowledging the challenges outlined, students and families can find assurance in the robust support networks and resources available to them, including those provided by our agency.”

Upon FAFSA completion, students become eligible for federal, state, and school financial aid programs to help cover higher education expenses. PHEAA, created by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1963, is the state’s provider of student financial aid, serving millions of Pennsylvania students each year. That’s why House Majority Policy Chairman Ryan Bizzarro says its so important these issues are worked out quickly.

“Millions of students rely on this process to afford furthering their education. It’s concerning when we hear there are issues with the new FAFSA rollout and that our families are frustrated,” said Bizzarro. “College needs to be accessible to all Pennsylvanians, regardless of financial status. We’ll use the testimony we gathered today to ensure we’re accomplishing that goal and work to make changes if necessary.”

Testimony for Wednesday’s hearing can be found here. The hearing itself can be viewed in its entirety here. All other information about the House Majority Policy Committee can be found at pahouse.com/policy.