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The Next Stage of FAFSA: A Review of the New App

When news broke this summer that the Education Department was releasing a mobile app in which students and parents could fill out FAFSA forms, I was a bit wary. I believe certain tasks, namely those that involve a lot of typing, irrefutably are done more easily on a machine with a proper keyboard. Of course, FAFSA has evolved quite a bit since I used my bulky Gateway to fill out my forms some years ago.

And of course, when I was in high school, smartphones were not popular. One or two people I knew had a Blackberry, but the idea that anyone could use their phone to access and complete important federal documents would have been considered ridiculous. But today, when 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, the concept is no longer absurd, but expected. There’s been much written about removing all barriers to access for low-income students: For the class of 2017, 49 percent of high school graduates were eligible for a Pell Grant, but only 36 percent filled out FAFSA. That’s money left on the table and opportunity lost.

So, when the app dropped on Monday, I decided to give it a test run. I wanted to see how truly easy it is to use and if it has potential to meet the DoE’s goal of getting more students to fill out a FAFSA. Below is what stood out to me the most about the process:

  • The very first thing I needed to do was obtain an FSA ID. You cannot do this in the app. Instead, the user is directed to the FSA ID page on the DoE website. This page is not user-friendly. It took me about 15 minutes to obtain an ID, and the page wasn’t responsive. I entered a desired user name, filled out the rest of the requested info on the page and hit next to proceed to the next page. Well, my user name was taken. I got bounced back to the previous page and had to re-enter all of my information—not just a new user name. Plenty of websites have code underwritten that detects whether a username is taken when the user is still on the page; DoE should do this. I ran into another hurdle when one of my challenge questions (you must select two pre-written and write two of your own) was rejected without explanation. Without knowing why it was rejected, it was a bit tricky to come up with a new one.
  • Once I was done obtaining my ID, there was no clear way to get back to the app. I understand the app is directed at mobile natives, but I think if the goal is a friction-free experience, wayfinding should be explicitly clear.
  • When I did make it back into the app, my basic information (name, address, etc.) was pre-populated from my FSA ID. I answered a few more questions about my legal place of residence and purposefully let the session run out before I completed the first section. I had been prompted to create a ‘save key’, so that if I needed to leave the app and return, I could pick up where I left off in the section. What was unclear was whether I had to physically tell the app I was leaving, enter my save key and exit, or—as I am sure oft happens to teenagers—if I simply got distracted and the session timed out, I could enter my save key and re-enter the application at the point of distraction. Turns out it was the former. I was prompted to enter my save key when I accessed my FAFSA in progress, but that seems for naught, as all the information I had manually entered was gone.
  • I chose to have my information pre-populated from my IRS documents. The IRS webpage was not at all mobile-friendly and I had to do a lot of expanding and shrinking and scrolling to understand what information was desired. Once I got back into the app, I had to do a lot of clicking through single-question pages where the answer was already filled in with “Transferred from the IRS.” While FAFSA has come a lot way in eliminating pointless questions, I think there’s still some click-minimizing that can be done if information is being auto-populated.

Despite those pain points, overall I think the app is slick-looking and mostly user-friendly. It didn’t take that long to complete considering what the ultimate return on investment is—money for college. Of course, it would have taken longer had I needed to bring a parent or parents in the picture to provide their financial information, but seemingly not too much longer. The external pages definitely need some work so they are as mobile-friendly as the app.

But the real issue is getting students to the app in the first place. Sure, once they’re in it, it’s important the experience is smooth so they don’t quit out of frustration. But as with many things in life, getting started is the hardest part. That’s the real challenge for schools to address…and a topic for a whole other blog. Part two to come.