More colleges extend commitment deadlines in response to FAFSA delays

Adding to the growing number of institutions making adjustments this admissions cycle, the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems announced last week that they will extend their respective commitment deadlines for first-year undergraduates from May 1 to May 15, following news that the Department of Education will not send data from students’ Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) to colleges until at least March, The New York Times reports. Due to the two-month delay, UC and CSU financial aid officials say they may not be able to send financial aid packages to admitted students until April. Only out-of-state and international first-year undergraduate students at UC Berkeley were exempt from this extension. 

The commitment deadline changes made by UC and CSU, which together enroll more than 600,000 undergraduates, may influence other higher education institutions, Higher Ed Dive says. The universities join at least 80 other U.S. higher education institutions that have announced they are no longer requiring accepted students to commit by May 1, according to a publicly available online spreadsheet updated by a college counselor in New York City. In addition, some schools have declined to make public announcements about their deadlines but are offering individual extensions to students who request them, the Times says.

An evolving response to FAFSA crunch

The commitment deadline extensions are the latest ripple effect following the December 2023 release of the new FAFSA, which promises to modify, simplify, and update the formula that calculates student aid. There have been significant delays and technical glitches since its rollout, complications that have made it difficult for some families to submit their FAFSAs. Last month, financial aid and higher education organizations called on colleges to extend enrollment, scholarship, and financial aid deadlines beyond May 1 so families have more time to submit their applications and consider financial aid packages.

Some colleges and state aid programs have also pushed back financial aid deadlines so that students have time to complete their applications. Over four million students have submitted their FAFSAs since the application went live, according to the Department of Education. The number of high school seniors submitting the FAFSA through Feb. 2 was down 49%—a difference of nearly 800,000 submissions—compared to the same time last year, when the form was released in October, according to the National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA Tracker.

Last year, higher education experts told Higher Ed Dive that the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid didn’t have enough funding to effectively fulfill its multiple responsibilities, which include the FAFSA rollout, restarting student loan repayment plans after a three-year pause, and launching both a new income-driven repayment plan and a new program to help borrowers get out of default and back to good standing. The Biden Administration’s 2022 request for a more than 30% funding increase led to a legislative impasse.

Finding workarounds

In the absence of timely FAFSA data, some colleges, including the Catholic, Jesuit schools John Carroll University (JCU) and Saint Louis University (SLU), are employing new strategies to award their own grants and scholarships to accepted students before FAFSA sends its data to colleges, the Times reports. SLU is launching its own institutional aid application, similar to the FAFSA, so families can get “comprehensive financial aid awards” by the end of February, and the university is also suspending financial aid application deadlines and will offer extended financial aid counseling hours to answer students’ and their families’ questions online and in person. JCU is requesting financial aid information from students directly to make college cost estimates, which include guaranteed institutional aid offers.

In addition, the Times notes that a number of private colleges and universities with “comparatively ample financial aid resources” and access to data from the CSS profile, another financial aid form, are “largely insulated from the chaos” and likely able to make financial aid offers to accepted students sooner than those relying on FAFSA data.

Additional support

This week, the Department of Education said it will take “new steps” to make it easier for colleges to process records and help students. Those include significantly reducing verification requirements, which ask students to submit additional information if their FAFSAs are flagged for review; suspending routine program reviews, which evaluate if a college meets the department’s eligibility requirements; and giving colleges more flexibility on renewing participation in the federal student aid programs, according to a recent announcement

These changes come in addition to the department’s FAFSA College Support Strategy, which will deploy financial aid teams to underresourced schools, allocate $50 million for nonprofits that will provide financial aid support, and release test versions of the Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) so that schools can prepare their systems to assemble aid packages. These steps are in response to feedback from students and parents, financial-aid administrators, college and university presidents, and others impacted by FAFSA delays, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona told reporters on Monday, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Next Up

Community college students face financial obstacles to staying enrolled

A new survey of stopped-out and currently enrolled community college students finds that work obligations and college costs are major reasons why they leave their programs. Policies focused on reducing financial barriers can help.