Delayed FAFSA Rollout Leads to Frustration
FAFSA is a program of the U.S. Department of Education / Credits: David Sipos
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has always caused many a headache for students and their families applying to college. This year, major overhauls caused new uncertainty and frustration. Between a delayed rollout and platform malfunctions, applicants were left confused in an already tumultuous and complicated college application process.
The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study programs. It is used by many universities, scholarship organizations, and the federal government to award aid.
This year, the Department of Education released the form in January rather than its typical release in October. In past years, the earlier students could submit the FAFSA, the earlier colleges could offer them financial aid packages, allowing applicants more time to weigh their options of schools and aid.
The delayed release was due to changes ordered by a bipartisan 2020 law. The purpose of the FAFSA Simplification Act was to encourage low-income students to apply for aid by reducing the number of questions from 108 to 36, reduce the requirements for students who are homeless or in foster care, and lessen the amount of money working students are expected to contribute to education costs when making calculations.
This year, the FAFSA was released through a “soft-launch,” which only allowed applicants to access the form at certain random times. As a result, families have waited days, even weeks, to complete the form. The Education Department cited maintenance as reason for the periods where the form was inaccessible.
The Education Department published little information about what exactly the delayed rollout would look like. Kathryn Moore, guidance counselor for the class of 2024, said that she learned about many of the challenges with the form at the same time families did. “This fall I attended a webinar about the FAFSA changes. Even the people running the webinar were like ‘we don't know this yet’ and ‘we don’t know this yet,’” she recalled.
She noted that even the December release date was murky, “people assumed December 1, but then it became December 31.”
Vivien Dobrescu (‘24) said that, while the interface and shortened process was easy to use, she faced many difficulties throughout the process of completing it. “I was filling it out and it would shut down on me and lock me out,” she explained. She added that the website saved her answers sometimes, but that she did have to restart the application at one point.
Many students apply to a school’s early decision program, meaning they would be contractually bound to go there if they were accepted. One such anonymous student pursuing need-based financial aid described the anxiety they felt around the delayed rollout and soft-launch. “[Their college] was like, ‘do [the FAFSA] when it comes out, do it as soon as possible.’ So I was like, ‘oh, I’ll do it in the next two weeks.’ But then two weeks becomes three, and then four, and maybe even five.”
While the college they will attend next year has given them significant financial aid, they were left with $10,000 each year their family must pay. Because FAFSA had not been released when they were admitted mid-December, they had to submit documents directly to the school and complete the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS Profile, which is used for applying for non-federal aid. They worried about getting the FAFSA submitted early enough as many scholarships are first-come, first-serve.
Ms. Moore noted that students often do not apply early because they are concerned about locking themselves into a four-year six-figure contract. She clarified that the delayed FAFSA release did not deter students from applying early decision since other assessments of financial need were available, including the CSS Profile. These tools allow students to understand their financial situation at different institutions and help them come to conclusions about whether to apply early decision.
Universities have their own roadblocks with the messy release, pushing back FAFSA deadlines to accommodate students. Ms. Moore outlined the dilemma schools face: “colleges want to push back their deadline as far as they can to let students submit the FAFSA, but then not push them back too far to when they can’t turn around these financial aid award letters.”
She added that “most students don’t want to commit May 1 to a college if they don’t have all their financial aid award letters.”
In late January, NPR reported that the Department of Education now has to address a failure to update financial aid tables for inflation. This affects calculations of how much families must contribute. The error will likely result in more delays for families and universities as the May 1 commitment deadlines nears.