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Education Department starts sending financial aid data to colleges after months of delays

FILE - Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College, Jan. 10, 2024. After months of delays and technical hiccups, some colleges and universities have started to receive federal data they need to put together financial aid offers for incoming students. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of delays and technical hiccups, some colleges and universities have started to receive federal data they need to put together financial aid offers for incoming students, the Biden administration said Monday.

The Education Department says it sent a first batch of student records to a few dozen universities on Sunday and is making final updates before expanding to more universities.

The delay has cut into the time schools usually have to assemble financial aid packages before the typical May 1 deadline for students to commit to a university. Many colleges have extended enrollment deadlines as they wait on the federal government, leaving families across the nation wondering how much financial help they will get with college tuition.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid overhaul delayed the form's usual rollout from October to late December. The department then soft-launched the new version to address lingering bugs in the system, but many families reported difficulties accessing the form.

Congress ordered the update in 2020 to simplify the notoriously complex form and expand federal student aid to more low-income students. The new application reduces the number of questions from 108 to fewer than 50, and it uses a new and more generous formula to determine eligibility for federal student aid.

The delays have had cascading impacts across higher education. FAFSA information is used to award state and federal education grants, and schools use it to assemble financial aid packages for prospective students. In the meantime, families often have only a murky idea of how much they would need to pay, which can be a dealbreaker when choosing colleges.

Advocates fear the holdup will deter some students from pursuing higher education at all, especially those who were already on the fence.

Repeated delays have become a blemish for the Biden administration, which has blamed Congress for rejecting requests for more money to overhaul information systems and update the decades-old application process.

Republicans in Congress say the Government Accountability Office has launched an investigation into the administration's handling of the overhaul.

Every year, about 17 million students submit the FAFSA as part of their applications for financial aid. So far, 5.5 million students have been able to fill out the new FAFSA form, according to the department.

The department updated its formula to account for inflation, which will increase the amount of aid students are eligible to receive. But the initial release didn’t include the updated inflation tool.

In a letter to the department in February, over 100 Democratic lawmakers pressed for answers on how the department planned to minimize the impact the delays have had on families.

“Any delays in financial aid processing will most impact the students that need aid most, including many students of color, students from mixed status families, students from rural backgrounds, students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, first-generation students, and students from underserved communities,” they wrote. “For institutions to support students’ ability to make informed decisions about their future, they need clear guidance and resources from the Department immediately on any and all next steps."

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