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Does the new FAFSA actually hurt farm families? It depends who you ask.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Cody Johannes is feeling uneasy. The 21-year-old has never taken out a student loan, but now he fears he might need one.

The Montana State University junior grew up in Worden, a census-designated place of a few hundred people in the southeastern part of Montana, where his family owns about 300 acres of alfalfa and more than 150 Black Angus cows.

During Johannes' freshman and sophomore years, his family's livelihood wasn't a liability. His tuition and fees were largely covered by outside scholarships and government financial aid. MSU helped, too, with state funding. But while filling out this year's new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, he worried that his farming background might raise the amount he'll have to pay for his senior year.

“It’s going to hurt, for sure,” said the junior, who is studying animal science and livestock management.

Johannes is not alone in his concerns. Republicans in Washington – and some rural Democrats – have been sounding the alarm for much of the past year about farm families potentially having to pay more money for college. Last month, more than a dozen senators sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accusing his agency of not adequately weighing the impacts of the new FAFSA on rural students. The form, used by millions of families to detail their capacity to cover college bills, has changed drastically for many families, including Johannes'.

The updated form “fundamentally misunderstands how farm families operate,” the senators wrote. In an early February news conference, Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, suggested some families in her state could end up paying more than five times what they were billed in previous years. She cited an Iowa education department report published in December 2022.

“They’re asset rich, but they are cash poor,” she said. “These ag families should not be forced to sell their farm so that their children should go to college.”

Whether that's a choice some families in rural America are facing may not be so cut and dried, experts say.

Much has changed since 2020, when Congress passed – and former President Donald Trump signed – bipartisan legislation codifying the new FAFSA into law. The Education Department has spent time tinkering with the details in ways that have assuaged advocates for rural students – or some of them, at least.

In recent months, however, the new form has been beset by hiccups, and has faced backlash on Capitol Hill as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle weighed in on an issue that has risen to the top of many families’ minds during an election year.

Read more: Millions of students may have just weeks to compare college financial aid offers

The delays have done little to ease the nerves of some families from agricultural backgrounds. Like everyone else seeking aid, they will have less time to compare financial aid offers for high school seniors or transfer students.

It’s too early to assess how many rural students might see their bills ultimately go up, or by how much. But some critics say the political griping in Washington may not completely reflect the realities of the situation.

“It seems like a nothingburger,” said Bryce McKibben, who helped write the FAFSA Simplification Act.

In a statement to USA TODAY, Education Department spokesperson Johanny Adames said the administration is “deeply committed to ensuring students from all backgrounds receive the Federal student aid they need to access higher education and unlock a brighter future.”

Why are farm families worried about paying for college?

The families' anxiety stems from a fairly simple change.

For years, the federal government didn’t consider the value of a family farm when it calculated how much money students and their parents could set aside for college. It also didn’t take into account the net worth of small businesses with less than 100 employees.

The authors of the FAFSA Simplification Act that passed in December 2020 thought those omissions were, in some cases, unfair to families with lesser means or assets. So they broadened the legislation, which passed overwhelmingly as part of a larger spending bill.

The revision rankled some corners of rural America. The December 2022 report Republicans have cited explains why: Under the old rules, an Iowa family with $60,000 in annual income and a farm with a net value of $1 million would be expected to pay about $7,600 annually toward their child's tuition. Under the new rules, that number could go as high as $41,000.

Those projections turned the heads of people like Cyndi Johnson, president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

“I don’t know too many farmers who are going to be willing to give up a field just so junior can go to college,” she said.

About a year ago, as the Education Department was preparing the new form, Ernst introduced a bill to reverse the provision perturbing some farm families. Cosponsoring the legislation was Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who often speaks about being a third-generation farmer.

“One-size-fits-all policies from unelected D.C. bureaucrats don’t work for Montana, and this new process by the Department of Education that may force farm families to pay more to send their kids to college is a prime example," Tester said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Read more: Colleges will have to wait longer for FAFSA data, in latest frustration with rollout

The proposed revision to the law got stuck in Congress and hasn’t made it out of the Senate.

But there have been some workarounds. The Education Department has shown leeway in its interpretation of the Simplification Act; in August, the agency clarified that families who own farms can subtract the value of their homes from their farms' net worth. If they have debt on any costly machinery, like tractors or combines, they can deduct that, as well.

“They do not want this making things worse for rural students,” said Frank Ballmann, the director of federal relations for the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs.

Ballmann said he’s been heartened by how the agency has handled the issue. Still, he's hoping for a firmer corrective and urging Congress to approve the bill Ernst and Tester proposed before students apply to college again next year.

In most cases, the Education Department has told college financial aid offices to treat the information families send in about their farm values – including deductions for property and debt as correct unless they have reason to believe something is wrong.

“It’s probably not likely something that people are going to be chased after for,” said McKibben.

To some, though, that level of trust is concerning. The agency is already slightly scaling back unrelated fraud-protection efforts this year to avoid other delays. In the longer term, McKibben said, the department's apparent willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt could cause more problems than it solves.

“I hope that’s sort of a one-year thing,” he said.

In the meantime, Johannes, the Montana State junior, has submitted his FAFSA. The next few months will be a waiting game for him, as schools like his compile financial aid offers expected to arrive much later than in prior years.

He's not sure what his package will look like. But if he has to sell some equipment or get another job next year, it's a price he said he's willing to pay.

"If I stretch myself too thin, my education is worth it," he said.

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at zschermele@usatoday.com. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Does the new FAFSA hurt farm families? Republicans say yes.