FAFSA Delays Alarm Students, Parents, Colleges, Higher Ed Advocates | Paying for College

FAFSA Delays Alarm Students, Parents, Colleges, Higher Ed Advocates | Paying for College

Key Takeaways

  • A federal error means some applications will have to be reprocessed.
  • It will again delay accurate student financial information being reported to colleges.
  • Colleges will be significantly delayed creating financial aid packages for students.

Continued delays are causing grave concerns among students, parents, colleges and higher education advocates about the rocky rollout of the 2024-2025 FAFSA.

Since its soft launch in late December, the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid – which is used to determine college students’ eligibility to receive financial aid – has been plagued with delays and challenges, including glitches and technical errors for students and parents trying to fill out the online form.

College Students at the University of Michigan

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On March 22, the U.S. Department of Education announced a miscalculation in the student aid index  – which replaced the expected family contribution – related to dependent students who reported assets. Meaning, any forms delivered to schools before March 21, 2024 with that information need to be reprocessed.

“This is another unforced error that will likely cause more processing delays for students,” Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, wrote in a statement. “At this stage in the game and after so many delays, every error adds up and will be felt acutely by every student who is counting on need-based financial aid to make their postsecondary dreams a reality.”

He adds that “as always, schools will work in good faith with our federal colleagues to get information to students as soon as possible. But let’s not make any mistake – schools can only work with valid and correct data that is provided to them from the Department of Education. It is not feasible or realistic to send out incorrect FAFSA data and ask thousands of schools to make real-time calculations and adjustments to the federal formula on the school side.”

Another delay occurred in February after the department had to update the tables used in the student aid index to account for inflation. The department originally failed to make that update on the new form, which was required in the bipartisan FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020 that led to an overhaul of the application.

As a result, colleges didn’t start receiving students’ financial information until March – when they were originally told late January.

Delays in opening the FAFSA cause a domino effect: delays in millions of students and parents filing it, delays in processing it and sending students’ financial information to colleges, delays in colleges creating financial award packages and delays in students receiving award letters and deciding where or even if they will attend college.

As a result of the ongoing delays, school leaders and higher education organizations called for colleges to implement flexible deadlines this year and reconsider the annual May 1 national “College Decision Day.”

“During the pandemic, many institutions extended their enrollment, scholarship, and financial aid deadlines beyond the traditional May 1 date, and we urge institutions to make similar accommodations this year,” a coalition of nine higher ed organizations wrote in a joint public statement. “We all want students and families to have the time they need to consider their financial options before making enrollment decisions.”

Widener University in Pennsylvania, for example, was among the first to announce that it will not adhere to the May 1 deadline, which is when prospective students applying in the regular admissions process put a deposit down on a school.

“For most institutions, (the processing delays are) going to put us in a position where giving financial aid offers out to students is really something that’s going to take place throughout the month of April and beyond,” Joseph E. Howard, vice president for enrollment at Widener, told U.S. News. “So that’s creating considerable pressures and challenges for families as they make really consequential decisions for their children.”

The impact of the delays “is really most pronounced for vulnerable students, students who have need-based aid, students from low-income families or underserved schools,” Howard says. “It really has a potential to harm our vulnerable community members.”

At a news conference in February, a group of Senate Republicans discussed their frustrations with the form’s turbulent rollout and suggested that the Education Department had wrongly devoted more time and resources to President Biden’s controversial federal student loan forgiveness plan than to ensuring that the new FAFSA was rolled out smoothly.

“In the last three years, the Biden administration’s Department of Education has put considerable time and resources to prioritize their student loan schemes. But they’ve been unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities mandated by Congress and essential to American families,” Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, said. “The biggest concern is for those high school students who are just now attending college for the first time who have not been through this before. Many students will likely forgo college because they do not know if they can afford it.”

He also announced that his office had launched a website for individuals to report any issues they are experiencing with the 2024-25 FAFSA application, and that the Government Accountability Office has begun an investigation into how the Education Department has implemented the introduction of the new FAFSA.

Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor at IvyWise, says many concerned people and organizations are advocating on behalf of students and their families “for some semblance of fairness” in terms of the tumultuous process and the ultimate outcome for families.

“How much fairness we get, that’s yet to be seen,” he says. “This is frustrating because we’ve known about this rollout for quite some time. And they had what looked like a very long ramp for the changes in the FAFSA and they are missing their target by months.”

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