“Fiasco.” “Debacle.” “Snafu.”
These and other more colorful words have been used to describe the U.S. Department of Education’s roll-out of the new website for the “simplified” Federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
The form, typically available on October 1, had a “soft launch” when it was made available to students and their families on December 30, and only for about an hour. That lasted several days. Now the website is open 24/7 but applicants are still experiencing glitches that make completing the form a maddening experience.
For those students who have been able to negotiate the form and submit it, another delay awaits them. The Department of Education has announced that, after students submit the FAFSA, it will not provide the information to campuses for at least one month. Previously, getting the data took just a few days. The Department of Education has yet to send any completed FAFSAs to campuses.
The delay is more than just a nuisance. The FAFSA is the first step for virtually all colleges in calculating what financial aid they can offer prospective and current students. Without the FAFSA data, the whole admissions process is delayed. All that financial aid staff can say now to prospective students and families is to be patient and complete the online FAFSA form as soon as they’re able.
Confronted by frustration and delays applicants may throw up their hands and defer any college for a year. Or they might submit multiple acceptances and wait for the most attractive package. As a stopgap, some campuses are offering “tentative” financial aid packages, but will have to wait for the FAFSA data before making their absolute best offer.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Department of Education neglected to adjust its calculations to adjust for inflation, which we all know has been unbridled the past few years. This oversight means students and their families will have to report having more money at their disposal than they really do, reducing the financial aid for which they qualify.
The Department of Education faced a no-win situation. They could go with the current formula and deprive millions of students of the financial aid on which they were depending or adjust the formula which would result in further delays.
This week the Department of Education announced it will correct the inflation error but not when the formula would be updated. As reported in Inside Higher Education the department may hold on to the forms already submitted and update them before sending to campuses. On the other hand, it might transmit the FAFSAs to campuses as is and send out corrections. Doing so will create confusion for students who will have completed the FAFSA and already received a financial aid package – campuses will have to make revisions and communicate the new package.
Bottom line: further delays.
Based on their previous experience admissions officers are pretty good at projecting how many of the students their college accepts will eventually enroll and be on campus for move-in day. During COVID, every year was an outlier. And now, with the FAFSA fiasco, their forecasts this year are as cloudy as during the pandemic.