FAFSA applications crater after rocky rollout

FAFSA applications crater after rocky rollout

The number of students who have applied for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is far behind previous years, leaving experts concerned many may opt out all together after a tumultuous rollout of the new system by the Department of Education.

Around 5.7 million students have applied for FAFSA, a fraction of the average 17 million at this point in the cycle.

While there is still some time for the numbers to rise, advocates are skeptical and pointing to the delays and confusion during the release of this year’s revamped forms as a cause.

“I do think that because the FAFSA became available so much later than it did in a normal year and there were so many glitches at the beginning of the process that needed to be resolved, some of those folks who would normally file a FAFSA earlier in the process may have decided to set it aside temporarily to wait for all of those things to be resolved and worked out before they come back to complete it,” said Karen McCarthy, vice president for public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. 

The worry is “that maybe some of the glitches and the late rollout and limited availability when it first became available — that all of that may have turned some people off to completing the FAFSA entirely,” McCarthy said. “So I think that does remain to be seen. Hopefully they will be able to catch up for last year. I don’t know if that’s possible.”

The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) keeps a tracker for FAFSA applications for high school seniors, not including those who are reapplying. As of March 1, NCAN recorded only 1.2 million high school seniors have submitted applications, a 34 percent decrease from last FAFSA cycle.

“We pushed back the starting line for students and families to submit and complete the FAFSA, but the finish line is in the same place, right?” said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at NCAN. “The fall semester is still going to start at the same time, and so we have a really compressed time frame to connect students with the financial aid that they need to matriculate to a post-secondary institution.”

The debacle with the FAFSA system started when the Department of Education (DOE) was not able to get the revised forms completed by October, the typical month when they become available. The department put out the applications on the last day of December, fulfilling at the last minute the deadline that Congress gave it to revise FAFSA.

The previous application was much longer and more complicated for students and families, with lawmakers wanting the process simplified. The new forms have fewer questions and allow DOE to pull tax records from the IRS so families do not have to search for that information.

After the new forms finally made it online, however, the application process was hammered with technical difficulties.

The department could only keep the applications available for limited hours in the first few weeks. Once that was fixed and the application process was available full time, the agency then had to delay sending FAFSA information to schools until March.

The administration only started sending the FAFSA data to schools this past week, leaving students on edge about when they will get final aid offers from colleges and wondering how much time they will have to decide among schools.

A DOE spokesperson told The Hill the agency is working to make sure applicants receive the maximum amount of aid they qualify for.

“The Education Department’s delays and failed implementation of FAFSA have caused chaos for states, schools, and families,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Education Committee, said in a statement to The Hill. “Students rightfully need financial certainty before enrolling. Unfortunately, we will not know the full effects of these delays on enrollment until this fall. The Committee will continue to hold the Department accountable for this delay.”

The difficulties during the process have led Republican lawmakers to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate the matter, while Democrats sent a letter to the Department of Education asking for details on how it will make sure families are not affected by the delays.

“All these challenges and delays may cause some students — particularly low-income students who are most dependent on federal aid — to give up and not pursue postsecondary education,” GOP lawmakers wrote in their letter.

DeBaun said the end of June will be an important date in determining where FAFSA application numbers will land this year.

“It’s possible that students will realize as these deadlines approach, ‘Oh, yeah, I really do need to get this in.’ That could drive some pretty quick improvements to the fastest cycle,” he said.

But to catch up on the numbers, there is “a lot more” that can be done, DeBaun added.

“Doing what we have done in previous years is not going to be enough this FAFSA cycle to get us the results that we need and to ensure that post-secondary enrollment stays stable or increases,” he said.

It is imperative to let families know the system is back on track, as many probably delayed filling out applications until the bumps in the road were smoothed over, he added.

The next step of the rollout is the Department of Education getting FAFSA to colleges. While those efforts have ramped up this week, schools will have to work overtime to get their offers out to students in a reasonable time frame.

McCarthy said the hope is that “clean” records are sent so “that schools are actually able to access them and get them into their systems.”

While some problems with the data are expected, as happens every year, McCarthy said the goal is that “schools are able to begin their aid offer work in earnest and that we don’t have problems with those records.”

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