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  • Tommy Cole

FAFSA Issues Derail College Application Process for Prospective Students

Courtesy of CNN

For many years, the process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA, has been marred by complications and mass confusion. However, hope arrived for millions of young people when the Department of Education unveiled significant changes to FAFSA after lawmakers agreed, in a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, to make the process more seamless for potential students. This legislation included changes and provisions such as significantly reducing the number of questions on the form, expanding Pell Grant eligibility, and modifying the income thresholds for the automatic zero Student Aid Index.  Since that announcement, the revamped forms were launched at the end of December, two months past the typical FAFSA cycle, leaving students and college officials in a frenzy. To make matters worse, the forms had dramatic technical glitches during the first couple of weeks of their availability. Following these early technical errors, the Department of Education also announced that they had not accounted for inflation in their new financial aid calculation. 

These delays and errors mean that incoming students and their families are unable to be certain about the amount of aid that they are set to receive from universities this year. Simultaneously, colleges are unable to assess how much aid they are to offer to students. As a result, as of late March, FAFSA submissions were down approximately 29% from the previous year. On average, over 17 million prospective students submit FAFSA each year. As of April, most issues with the actual submission of the FAFSA form have been resolved. However, moving information from the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office to colleges across the country has brought forth a host of new problems. 

In late March, the Federal Student Aid Office discovered that some schools were receiving faulty information from student FAFSA applications, including student tax discrepancies from the information sent from the Internal Revenue Service. This information plays a critical role in the process of determining a student’s financial aid eligibility. According to both the Department of Education and the IRS, all the applications affected by this error must be reprocessed. Officials are scrambling to finish this logistical hurdle by the first half of April. 

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, issued a statement in response to the errors, stating, “The rollout of the new FAFSA has been plagued by issues of broken trust, data integrity, and missed deadlines. We note that the Department quickly acknowledged and investigated these data mismatch issues when they were identified by the financial aid community. But we must also emphatically reiterate that every day matters, and with hundreds of thousands of FAFSAs needing to be reprocessed, even more delays for students are coming.” In light of the FAFSA delays, many colleges have decided to push back the deadline to commit to attendance, including the Pennsylvania State College System of Higher Education and George Mason University in Virginia. Other institutions, such as California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, have decided to send “provisional" offers of aid now, giving a non-guaranteed estimate to potential students. Nonetheless, students are still in a period of limbo and may feel pressure to commit to a certain college before seeing how much they will owe for tuition or how much federal aid they will eventually be granted. 

The issues caused by this year's FAFSA troubles could also have a significant impact on enrollment in college in the United States. According to data from the National College Attainment Network, at the current rates, about half a million fewer students in the graduating class of 2024 will submit a FAFSA application compared to graduates from the class of 2023. If the pace of completion doesn't increase, there is potential for a 4 percent drop in college-goers for the next fall, made up primarily of low-income and first-generation students, according to NCAN Senior Director of Data and Strategic Initiatives Bill DeBaun. This would represent the biggest drop in the rate of college enrollment since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Amidst all of this error and uncertainty, Americans' faith in President Biden’s Department of Education is eroding. There is now an unparalleled rift between the administration's education officials and the nation's colleges and the students they seek to educate. David Sheridan, the director of financial aid at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, explained his frustration with this year's process, stating, “It’s hard to trust anything by now that the department is saying.” Others have accused the department of crafting a “false positive narrative,” misguiding college officials and students as well as their parents.

The Department of Education will have to redeem themselves to regain the trust of Americans impacted by their blunders and missteps in this year's FAFSA process. The process could benefit from more direct student input, allowing officials to understand exactly how to avoid problems and serve the needs of students applying to be awarded federal student aid.  It will take time for the impact of the FAFSA Simplification Act to be truly felt by young Americans and their families in the wake of these errors. 


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