Ongoing delays and technical difficulties continue to complicate the rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), further holding up students’ financial aid offers. Initially announced as part of a larger FAFSA simplification, the new FAFSA has hit several snags since it became available on Dec. 30, three months later than its usual October release.
Over 17 million students typically use the FAFSA to access financial aid, work study, and Pell Grants for low-income students to cover college costs, NPR says. As of February 5, more than 3.6 million students have submitted the new FAFSA, according to the Department of Education. Some experts have voiced concerns about the potential college access implications of a compressed financial aid cycle, especially for low-income and first-generation students, as well as those with one or more undocumented parents or guardians.
Latest setbacks in FAFSA rollout
The Department of Education recently announced that it would not submit students’ FAFSA data for financial aid calculations to colleges until early March, Higher Ed Dive reported. The department originally told colleges they’d have that information available in late January.
The latest delay is meant to give the department more time to fix an error in the math that it uses to calculate how much aid students will receive to account for inflation; the mistake would have potentially cost students an estimated $1.8 billion, NPR says. Although aid administrators are relieved the department is making the correction, it will leave aid offices with less time to create financial aid packages based on the FAFSA data.
“It’s going to be difficult to get aid offers out to prospective students before April,” Brad Barnett, the financial aid director at James Madison University in Virginia, tells NPR. “It’s unfortunate that these delays could impact whether a prospective student goes to college at all this fall, or at the very least where they go.”
Some students are also struggling to complete their FAFSAs due to a systemwide error that tells parents who do not have a Social Security number that they are “unauthorized to act on behalf of the student since they already have a 24–25 FAFSA form,” even if their child has not started a their FAFSA yet, Inside Higher Ed reports. There are currently no workarounds for this issue.
Pushing back deadlines
Education leaders are encouraging colleges and universities to reassure applicants that their financial aid packages will arrive, and that other forms of institutional and merit-based aid may be available, Diverse Issues in Higher Education says. Some schools, including the University of Illinois at Chicago, Oregon State University, Kalamazoo College, and Lewis & Clark College, are pushing their commitment deadlines until June 1, Higher Ed Dive and Inside Higher Ed report.
Ten financial aid and higher education organizations, including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), have called on higher education institutions to push back enrollment, application, and financial aid deadlines so that students don’t feel forced to commit to a college by the traditional deadline of May 1 before getting their financial aid packages. Colleges usually mark May 1, known as National College Decision Day, as the commitment deadline for students to choose to a school. Several universities are also pushing back deadlines for making formal financial aid offers so that students receive their acceptance letters and aid awards around the same time.
Some federally funded tuition assistance programs may also be affected by the delays. For instance, the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program, which lowers college costs for Washington, DC, students by paying the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition, is also pushing back when it releases its applications, The Washington Post reports.
Ensuring students ‘hang in there’
“I understand delays have been frustrating for institutions,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters Monday, according to Higher Ed Dive. “We’re completely overhauling a broken system—a system that’s older than me and based on COBOL, a coding language many institutions stopped using decades ago.”
The Department of Education has said it is working to prevent future problems with FAFSA. It also announced the FAFSA College Support Strategy, which provides $50 million in federal funding to nonprofit organizations to recruit financial aid professionals who will offer technical assistance to under-resourced colleges. The strategy also includes a concierge service that puts colleges in direct contact with financial aid experts. The department will send financial aid experts, resources, and technology to help lower-resourced colleges—such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and tribal colleges and universities—that have smaller staffs and older software prepare and process forms, so that schools have the support they need to help students complete their financial aid forms. The department will deploy at least 50 Federal Student Aid personnel and staff to colleges within the next three weeks, a senior official said, according to Higher Ed Dive.
Schools will also receive test versions of Institutional Student Information Records, or ISIRs, which summarize students’ FAFSA information, within the next two weeks, so they can begin to prepare aid packages. The plan will help some colleges quickly assemble financial aid offers when they receive FAFSA information in March, but it does not explicitly address technical problems that have prevented some families from completing their FAFSAs, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
“What we don’t want is for students to read the headlines and get frustrated or say, ‘This just isn’t even worth waiting,’” Brett Schraeder, managing director of financial aid at education consulting firm EAB, told Higher Ed Dive. “We want students to hang in there.”