FAFSA problems pile up, leaving students and parents scrambling

The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms, which were marketed as a simpler and easier process for parents and students, have turned into a nightmare, giving families anxiety and stress over whether their students will have what they need for scholarships and college acceptance deadlines.  

The forms already got a late start — launching in late December rather than October. When they were finally released online, there were complications that led to the forms getting taken down multiple times and families unable to fix any mistakes they put in them.  

Now, officials say information from the FAFSA forms won’t actually be given to schools until March, leading families to tell The Hill their minds are spinning with concerns over missing scholarship deadlines and if they will get a final offers from schools before their student has to decide if they want to attend.

“Our daughter has already been accepted to college, and we are now in the process of starting the financial assistance forms required by many schools to complete the application process — albeit we have not even gotten past the first step of signing in,” said Kristy from Texas, who requested that her last name be withheld and said she is still struggling to access the forms.

The Department of Education (DOE) has touted that the new form is quicker and easier to complete, including the ability to collect financial information from the IRS so individuals don’t have to dig through tax records themselves. The department estimates the form can take as little as 10 minutes when all goes well.

Anne Zinn, a school counselor with the Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut, said parents and students have found relative ease with the FAFSA forms once they can actually get into it. 

However, others have found difficulties starting the process — and trouble getting in touch with anyone to help with their situation.

Kristy says she has reached out to the Federal Student Aid Office through “the phone number multiple times. It says they are not taking calls. The chat leaves me dead end.”

A mother from Colorado told The Hill she is also having trouble accessing the form, saying she is not receiving the parental link from her daughter to fill it out. She says she has tried contacting the office, but when she got through to someone, they did not know how to help her. 

The hiccups and delays are compounding what is already a stressful time for families trying to make major decisions about higher education.

Along with the added anxiety of not knowing what financial aid her daughter might be offered until March or April, Kristy’s daughter is required by her high school to have her FAFSA completed for a grade. As of now, the school has not waived or extended the deadline for the assignment.

“Given the constant issues we have faced while trying to complete the FASFA online, we have been tempted to print out a PDF and complete it by hand,” Kristy said. “While we understand that this defeats the purpose of having an online form, the technical problems have made it nearly impossible for us to complete the form in a timely, efficient manner.”

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The DOE’s delay in finishing FAFSA information is also affecting scholarship deadlines, with the mother from Colorado saying some required FAFSA information as early as this month.

The April timeline for families to receive financial aid offers from universities gives students only a few weeks to decide on a school before the typical May 1 college decision deadline.

“It concerns me a lot, because the economy right now is bad. My husband and I are making half as much this year as we did last year, which, we’re going to get kind of penalized for that, right?” the mother from Colorado said. “If [my daughter] gets into a school that’s $85,000 a year, and I don’t know what our actual cost is going to be, I hate to deprive her of an opportunity, but I also can’t financially overcommit ourselves.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a call Monday that he has also been frustrated with the delays but blames Congress for not giving the Federal Student Aid office the funding it needs to complete all the changes it has asked for.

As of last week, 3.1 million individuals have completed the FAFSA forms. In the 2019-20 year school year, 17.7 million FAFSA forms were submitted.

The tight turnaround between financial aid offers and college decisions is especially difficult for 18-year-old Sydney Mize from Pennsylvania, who applied to around 30 schools.  

“All of the ones I have heard from are keeping the decision date the same and are saying they will give me a financial aid offer on time,” Mize said. “However, the offer will be based on the [College Scholarship Service Profile] and is not final, so once they get my FAFSA they can change it.” 

The DOE announced Monday it will be sending experts to certain institutions and donating millions of dollars to nonprofits to help colleges handle the delays and processing that will need to occur quickly once the forms are sent in March.  

Mize is concerned these delays will cause her to take more student loans out if FAFSA does not come in on time, and that she might have to decide on a school before knowing her final aid offer.

“I don’t get to really think it through, especially with multiple schools to choose from. I am scared that I will commit to a school without the means to pay for it and will have to take out more loans than I originally intended,” Mize said.

Zinn said she would not recommend anyone make decisions based on a financial letter that is not the final offer they will receive from a school.

“I’m concerned not only that students will make a choice to not attend the school that they were interested in or that they had their heart sets on. But, on the flip side, they might make too quick of a decision without the appropriate financial aid information and then be stuck with loans or debt that they weren’t prepared for,” she said.

Meanwhile, some are hoping that the May 1 college decision deadline will get moved back to give families more time to decide.

“I have seen that some schools have pushed back their deadlines. I imagine that there are also many schools who are still in internal conversations within their institution about their May 1 deadline,” said Karen McCarthy, vice president for public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.


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