Each year, more than 17 million students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, hoping to secure the financial support they need to afford college. But this year, operational glitches and repeated delays in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Better FAFSA” rollout threaten to harm the very students and families that financial aid is intended to help. Despite promises of an easier, more straightforward application process, students and families so far have been met with glitches and delays, and still today, there are entire groups of students blocked from even completing the form.
The department notified schools on Jan. 30, the day that they were supposed to get detailed information to determine how much aid was available for each student, that schools would not receive that data until sometime in the first half of March, leaving colleges scrambling to determine how best to issue aid offers as soon as possible. Students may not receive financial aid offers until April and are typically expected to make a decision about where to attend college by May 1. The traditional “college decision day” simply may not work for students this year since many will not have had the time they need to consider all of their financial options.
This problematic rollout is causing more than just an administrative headache. For students — and even schools themselves — the ripple effect could be catastrophic. Federal financial aid programs were created to open the doors to higher education, bringing a dream within reach for some who would otherwise be unable to unlock that future. Those who can least afford to pay for college will be the most adversely affected.
Some students may be pressured into making one of the most significant financial decisions of their lives without having a complete picture of their options. Others may delay enrolling in college for another year, once the aid application process is running more smoothly. Or, worse yet, some students may become so frustrated by the complexity and confusion of this year’s financial aid process that they give up altogether, forgoing pursuit of a postsecondary degree or credential that would add to their earnings and provide all the other benefits that come with additional education.
Meanwhile, many colleges and universities are stuck in a holding pattern. Schools, state agencies and private scholarship providers rely on FAFSA data to determine how to distribute their own financial aid dollars. Without that information, financial aid offices can’t begin the work of putting together aid offers for students or even precise timelines about when students will receive them.
And without those aid offers, students can’t — really, shouldn’t — decide where to enroll. Financial aid offices are feeling pressure from students and families who are rightfully frustrated and confused as to why they haven’t been given any information on aid packages, as well as from institutional leaders who are eager to finalize their incoming class and budget for the year ahead.
Colleges and universities must now move to take corrective action, and fast. That is why we and other higher education association leaders are urging schools to extend financial aid and enrollment deadlines beyond the traditional May 1 date.
For years, students, families, college guidance and admissions professionals and researchers have known that the FAFSA was too complicated, lengthy and daunting, causing many qualified students to skip filling out the form and miss out on the aid they’re entitled to. In 2020, Congress ordered the Department of Education to overhaul the form by asking fewer questions and relying on technology to obtain key information already gathered by other federal agencies, such as the I.R.S.
Congress provided no additional funds to help roll out a new FAFSA. At the same time, Federal Student Aid, the office in the Department of Education responsible for the FAFSA, was working to revamp the student lending system while creating numerous new loan forgiveness efforts, including the expansive plan that was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court last summer. Big ambitions and limited resources most likely contributed to the problems we’re seeing now.
Given these challenges, Congress granted the department an extra year to pull off this huge system overhaul. But even with a three-year development runway, when the 2024-25 FAFSA finally “soft launched” nearly three months later than usual on Dec. 30, 2023, it did so with very limited availability: less than an hour a day for the first couple of days. While the form is now available 24/7 and more than three million students have been able to complete it, some applicants in special family circumstances and those who make simple mistakes on the form still cannot log back in to correct and resubmit.
Moving forward, the Department of Education must meet its own timelines, putting aside blame and finger-pointing to provide the higher education community with better, continuing and more proactive communication about the FAFSA rollout. Colleges, financial aid offices, high school guidance counselors and millions of students simply cannot make plans around last-minute delays and surprises.
The responsibility to make sure that students and families get the information they need, when they need it, in time to make educated decisions about college cannot be delayed.
Justin Draeger is president and C.E.O. of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education and a former U.S. under secretary of education.
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