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Dawn Medley Senior Vice President of Enrollment Management, Drexel University
Published: 20 February 2024

When Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020, it was touted as making it easier for more families to access the government funding they need to send their children to college. But as recent events have shown, it actually made things more complicated, frustrating and confusing.

While the new federal student aid form – known as the FAFSA – is much shorter and requires less manual entry of tax information, there were glitches and delays in rolling it out, as with many new websites.

Initially, families could access the FAFSA only for a limited time during a “soft launch” period in December.

Now the form is accessible to families for them to complete, but the data is not flowing out to schools and colleges. Applicants are also discovering another problem. Often, students and parents may need to consult other documents or each other as part of the application process, so they will pause their application to complete it later. However, after initially logging into the FAFSA website, many students and parents experienced difficulty when returning to finalize their submission. The simplified FAFSA application has been online since the end of December, but users are still experiencing some problems.

The Department of Education’s student aid calculations have also been delayed as it incorporates a new formula intended to expand eligibility for financial aid. The department also made an error in the formula when adjusting for inflation. The calculations used for the determination of aid eligibility had been based on outdated consumer price index rules from 2020 but have since been corrected. All of this has delayed sending aid calculations to schools.

As a longtime college administrator who has developed programs to improve access to higher education, I see this situation as a well-intentioned but poorly executed effort. Ultimately, I believe the changes to FAFSA will help more students realize their dream of earning a degree, but this year I’m afraid it may cause many to abandon it.

To better understand the situation and what might come next, it helps to know how the government and schools work together to provide financial aid.

Measuring ability to pay

The Department of Education created the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in 1992 to determine how much the federal government believes a family can contribute for a child’s college education. To be eligible for Pell Grantsfederal work-study or even student loans, students and families must complete the FAFSA.

Submitting the FAFSA prompts the Department of Education to set the amount it will offer in loans and other federal funding. The department then sends that information to the schools to which a student has applied. From there, the schools determine what additional financial aid they can provide. The schools make a final offer of financial assistance, called an award notice or award letter, to prospective students. Typically, this process takes a couple of months, and students can expect to receive their award letter from schools by the end of March, depending on when they filled out the FAFSA.

On Feb. 13, 2024, the Department of Education announced a temporary fix intended to shorten the department’s application review process, which would enable schools to make their offers sooner.

Extensions granted

In the meantime, some institutions have taken steps to alleviate stress and provide more clarity to applicants. Many schools have chosen to extend students’ time to accept their offer, moving from the traditional deadline of May 1, which is known as National Decision Day, to May 15 or even June 1.

Some have created their own mini FAFSA application to shortcut the aid application process; others are using their own aid calculators. Drexel University, where I oversee financial aid, has decided to forgo the FAFSA process and make a final offer based on another profile on a platform called College Scholarship Service that applicants complete.

None of these solutions is perfect. My peers and I are concerned that the frustration and confusion will lead students, particularly those who are the first in their families to go to college, to walk away from higher education altogether.

Students and families should now expect schools to communicate regularly, provide clear and concise information, and encourage students to fill out both a College Scholarship Service profile and a FAFSA if they haven’t already. The financial aid process is complicated, but it’s the responsibility of schools to distill it into a set of simple steps for their applicants.

Practical tips

Here are a few tips for students and their families going though this process right now:

Families should communicate with schools to see whether they are able to receive official offers based on net price calculators, College Scholarship Service profiles or school-created solutions. Students can do this via the schools’ websites, texting, email or even phoning.

If families do not have a guaranteed award from a school, they should ask for a deposit deadline extension so they have the full information they need to make a decision.

Institutions want to assist and support students through this period of uncertainty, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and stay in touch with the experts who have the most updated information.

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