June 13, 2024

More FAFSA Delays Likely to Slow Aid and College Decisions

If you’ll be in college next year, don’t expect financial aid offers anytime soon. Colleges won’t begin receiving processed FAFSAs — Free Applications for Federal Student Aid — until mid-March, the U.S. Education Department said on Tuesday.

“We will email students when their information has been shared with their schools and when they can access official aid calculations on their StudentAid.gov account,” U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary James Kvaal said in a press call after the announcement.

Once colleges receive processed FAFSAs, they can start building financial aid packages, which may include loan eligibility, grants, scholarships and estimated cost of attendance. That process takes another few weeks. The earliest students could get financial aid offers is the first week of April. Colleges will likely rethink the typical May 1 decision date to allow students and families enough time to consider their aid packages, says Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“It’s reasonable to think that many more states and institutions will be having those conversations about their deadlines, how far they can push those and still be able to get all their work done,” McCarthy says. “It really affects all of their timelines leading up to the beginning of the next school year.”

Biggest makeover in decades

The mid-March processing delay is the latest in a long string of missteps for the new 2024-25 financial aid form, which has undergone its biggest makeover since the 1980s. The FAFSA usually launches on Oct. 1 for the following academic year; this year, it “soft launched” three months late, on Dec. 30.

FAFSA users faced myriad glitches during the soft launch when the form was available for as little as 30 minutes per day. The online form is now available 24/7, and most technical issues have been resolved. However, some students — like those with undocumented parents — remain unable to complete the form.

In late January, after the form had already been live for nearly a month, the Education Department acknowledged a major math error that would have left $1.8 billion worth of aid on the table.

Until the Education Department’s announcement on Tuesday, colleges were still working under the assumption that they would begin receiving processed FAFSAs by the end of January, McCarthy says.

“Schools had already restructured their timelines in terms of awarding and when things would happen with regards to aid offers, and so now they’ve thrown that all into disarray again,” McCarthy says.

On Jan. 24, a group of lawmakers led by two Republicans — Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina — sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office calling for an investigation of the Education Department’s rocky FAFSA rollout.

“The Department of Education had three years to prepare the rollout of the updated FAFSA. Their inability to do their job has real consequences for students and families,” Sen. Cassidy said in a statement Tuesday. “These unacceptable delays from the Biden administration creates the real likelihood that many students will forgo college because they cannot choose a school without knowing their eligibility for student aid.”

Students and parents: Here’s what you can do

Despite the FAFSA delay and confusion, it’s still important to fill out the form. Otherwise, students won’t be able to qualify for federal student loans, grants, work-study and some scholarships. There’s no income limit to qualify for aid, and you might get more than you expect.

Submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. Even with the major processing delay, your FAFSA will record a time stamp when you submit it. Since some types of financial aid have priority deadlines or are first-come, first-serve, submit the form soon to qualify for the most aid.

Remember the paper FAFSA is an option. If your parents are undocumented and can’t complete their portion of the FAFSA, you may want to wait a few weeks until the online process opens. But if you have any upcoming priority financial aid deadlines, you can complete the PDF version of the FAFSA. It’s available in English and Spanish on StudentAid.gov. You’ll need to mail the completed paper form to the Federal Student Aid office.

Confirm your financial aid deadlines. If you’re a prospective student, reach out to your potential schools to see if they’ve moved their FAFSA and college decision deadlines. If you’re a current student, confirm the financial aid timeline at your school. All students should check financial aid deadlines for their state and any scholarships to which they’re applying.

Ask for assistance. Free FAFSA help is available. Reach out to your high school’s college counselor or the financial aid offices at your school (or potential schools), search for college access nonprofits in your community or call the Federal Student Aid office at 800-4-FED-AID.

Here’s the bright spot: the new FAFSA is easier and quicker to complete for many students. Some will need to answer only 18 questions, down from 103 possible questions in previous years. With a new financial aid eligibility formula, at least 1.5 million students from low-income backgrounds are expected to qualify for the maximum Pell Grant award — $7,395 per year.

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