In nearly three decades of working at colleges, Brad Barnett had seen scores of students get tripped up by the clunky old federal financial aid form, with its daunting array of questions and complicated formulas.
A revamped Free Application for Federal Student Aid - a shorter, simpler version of its infamous predecessor - promised an easier path for students to access more money to pay for college when it debuted in late December.
“We’ve wanted this for years,” said Barnett, the director of financial aid at James Madison University in Virginia. “Anyone who has worked with the old form knows how time-consuming and confusing it could be. How could you not be a fan of a better, easier, faster process?”
But the Education Department’s launch of the new FAFSA has been far from easy or fast. Technical glitches are locking some families out of the form, while many who have completed the FAFSA probably have incorrect estimates of aid because the agency failed initially to update a crucial income formula. Colleges won’t get most data until March, meaning students will have to wait longer for financial aid awards and have less time to weigh offers and make a key life choice.
Students, colleges, counselors, states and foundations are in limbo, wondering whether the new form will do more harm than good this year. Some worry the kinks could cause some prospective students to give up altogether. One analysis showed only 676,493 seniors had completed the FAFSA by late January, fewer than half of the 1.5 million who had done so at the same time last year.
“Do you have a lost class because of this?” Barnett asked. “This whole process was done in large part to help low- and middle-income students, but the delays and glitches are hurting them the most.”
Many schools traditionally ask new students to commit to attending by May 1. But some, including California’s two university systems - are pushing back that deadline because of the FAFSA problems.
At a recent conference for financial aid administrators, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona assured the crowd the department is working to ease the burden on schools and students. That includes creating a helpline and sending experts to some campuses to support financial aid offices.
“I understand the delays are frustrating. They’re frustrating for me,” Cardona said. “I know what we’re up against right now. And we’re going to work on it together.”
An update years in the making
The FAFSA is the gateway to billions of dollars in grants and scholarships from the federal government, states, foundations and colleges. It is essential for access to federal loans and work-study jobs and can determine whether students with limited financial resources enroll or remain in college. Each year, more than 17 million students submit the form.
For years, the form was derided for being labor-intensive - it had 103 questions - and exceedingly complicated.
Congress intervened in 2020 with a host of reforms, including a reduction in questions and an increase in the amount of income shielded from a formula used to determine aid eligibility. The changes were to ensure more students would receive the Pell Grant, a form of aid for undergraduates with exceptional financial need.
Lawmakers had already mandated the Internal Revenue Service help import data directly from tax filings on the new aid form, which officials said would also help students to sail through the application.
But it would be a heavy lift. The infrastructure underpinning the FAFSA is more than 45 years old - it had been deemed among the 10 federal systems in most critical need of modernization by the Government Accountability Office in 2019. Congress insisted the new FAFSA form be available by the 2023-2024 application cycle but neglected to give money to make it happen.
Then came the delays.
Emergence of problems
In June 2021, the Education Department said it would need another year to release the new form as technology updates proved far more challenging than projected. College access and financial groups began suspecting in early 2023 that another delay was likely when the agency failed to commit to releasing the FAFSA by its traditional October launch.
The agency later confirmed the form would not debut until December. Then it told colleges it would take weeks, not the usual couple of days, to send applicant data needed to create aid offers - giving schools less time to deliver packages to students.
But that was far from the end of the problems.
The soft launch of the application on Dec. 30 ushered in more disappointment and frustration. For the first few days, the online form was periodically unavailable. Parents eager to get a jump on the application spent hours - in some cases, days - trying to fill out the form. No one knew when the form would open or for how long.
Still, the Education Department said more than 500,000 FAFSA applications were successfully submitted in the first week, and more than 3.6 million by early February.
“It’s a lot simpler, less steps,” said Alli Bristow, a counselor at Florence-Carlton High School in Montana. Her seniors have not encountered any significant problems, and most of the 56 college-bound students at her school had completed it by early February.
But others are still experiencing trouble. An analysis of department data by the National College Attainment Network found that fewer than half of the usual number of high school students across the country have applied for college financial aid.
Anne Zinn, a high school counselor at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut, has noticed that families who have experience with the old FAFSA are having a much easier time with the new application. But students who are the first in their family to go to college are having trouble. The population facing the biggest hurdles, she said, are her students who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are undocumented and don’t have Social Security numbers.
“It’s been a huge roadblock in terms of verifying their identity, getting into the application, and then submitting the form,” Zinn said. “The updated FAFSA was supposed to make it easier for these parents.”
It used to be that parents without Social Security numbers had to print, sign and mail in a page so their American-born child could apply for aid. Now, those parents must create an FSA ID and answer a few questions to verify their identity. But the process isn’t working.
“What am I supposed to tell the students who’ve done everything right only to face these roadblocks?” said Lydia McNeiley, a college and career coordinator at School City of Hammond in Indiana. “What’s the signal that you’re sending to our students? That they don’t belong? That’s what it feels like to them.”
A high school senior in Kansas City, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her parents’ immigration status, said she has made three unsuccessful attempts to complete the FAFSA since mid-January.
At first, the website wouldn’t let her parents accept her invitation to contribute to the form. Then a call representative told her to delete the form, start over and have her parents invite her to fill out the application. That didn’t work either. She tried again and had success adding her mother, but not her father.
“It’s so draining,” said the aspiring physical therapist, who has been accepted to six colleges in the Midwest. “If I can’t get through, I don’t know what’s going to happen. How are we going to pay for school? I don’t want to have a crazy amount of student debt. Will I have to go somewhere else?”
For Leah, a mother who spoke on the condition her last name not be used because of her immigration status, completing the FAFSA is critical for keeping her daughter enrolled in a public university in Texas. Her family had no trouble filling out the application when her daughter applied to college last year, but now Leah can’t create the FSA ID needed to complete her portion of the new form.
Since New Year’s, Leah has called the Education Department’s helpline every day, waiting for hours to speak to someone. Sometimes the line gets disconnected. Other times she gets an automated message about “historically high call volumes.”
After a few weeks, she realized that calling between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. - as she got her youngest daughter ready for school and husband ready for his chemo treatments - gave her the best chance of getting someone on the line. But even then, reps had no solutions.
“My daughter works hard and wants to pursue her dream of being a nurse. She’s worried and wondering why this is happening,” Leah said. “I’ve lived here 23 years. I pay my taxes. My situation shouldn’t affect her. She’s a citizen.”
Of the 19 known technical errors in the new FAFSA, three affect parents without Social Security numbers, according to the Education Department. The department said fixing the problems is a high priority but declined to provide a specific timeline for resolving the matter.
Alexandra Gandy, a counselor at J.J. Pearce High School in Texas, is spending this month calling all 473 colleges that have accepted her students to find out whether there is an alternative plan to help them. About 48 percent of Pearce’s population is Latino and the majority have parents without Social Security numbers, Gandy said.
“Every single one of my kids has their student sections done and has gotten as far as they can. They need to know that colleges aren’t going to give up on them,” Gandy said. “There is palpable fear.”
The breadth of problems with the FAFSA rollout has raised the ire of congressional Republicans. They have accused the Biden administration of failing to meet its basic responsibilities and being too preoccupied with student-debt-cancellation policies. GOP lawmakers have gotten the GAO to launch an investigation.
“The department had plenty of time to prepare for the FAFSA rollout,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said on the House floor last week. “Students are hurting - especially low-income students who are most dependent on federal aid.”
Many fires to put out
Another fire has been burning since the fall. Back then, advocacy groups began questioning why the department seemingly ignored a congressional mandate to protect more of a family’s income from being used to determine aid eligibility. They warned the error would make students appear to have more money than they do to pay for college, which would result in less aid.
“I understand that there are complexities behind this,” said Barnett at JMU, “but not updating the tables when we first got started was a pretty significant oversight.”
After initially saying it would delay a fix until the 2025-2026 FAFSA cycle, the department decided in January to fix the mistake that by its estimates would have cost students $1.8 billion just in federal student aid. Financial aid officers applauded the move but knew it probably would cost them more time.
It has. The department said that, to make the fix, it would not be sending FAFSA data until the first half of March, instead of the end of January as promised.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Emily Schuck, vice president for enrollment management at Furman University in South Carolina. “We are now having to look at this new information in a shortened time frame and be able to turn around our best offer to students within perhaps a 15- to 30-day window, where historically we would have two, three months.”
Furman uses the CSS Profile, another financial aid form available through the College Board, to give students a rough estimate of how much support the university can provide. But Schuck says it’s not enough. Nearly 60 percent of her admitted students require need-based aid and a clear picture of their total costs.
With the latest delay, many schools are unlikely to send aid offers until April, leaving students less than a month before they’re expected to commit to a college. Schuck said Furman will work with students if they need additional time beyond the national May 1 deposit deadline.
Some colleges have started to push back deadlines, including all 33 schools in the California State University and University of California systems, which extended the date to May 15. Goucher College in Baltimore and Regent University in Virginia are among those who have moved the date to June 1. Other schools, including the entire University System of Maryland, say they are considering an adjustment.
Community colleges and other institutions with rolling admissions, such as Virginia Commonwealth University, have more leeway.
Hernan Bucheli, interim vice president of enrollment at VCU, hopes that flexibility will assure prospective students there is a place for them. He also hopes the revised aid calculations will secure more grant money for matriculating students - about 34 percent of the university’s freshmen are eligible for Pell Grants.
Aid offices are confronting the reality that even after the department sends FAFSA data, there may be other hiccups in store. Schools have to make sure the new data is compatible with their software. Colleges will need weeks to load the data and test their systems.
To smooth out the process, the Education Department last week said it will be releasing test versions of the FAFSA data within the next two weeks. That will help schools prepare their systems to generate aid offers.
Robert Muhammad, director of financial aid at Howard University in Washington D.C., said getting the test data will help alleviate some stress. He also applauded the department’s commitment of $50 million in funding to help schools with limited resources, such as tribal colleges and historically Black institutions.
“Many of the individuals at [Federal Student Aid] came out of the trenches of college financial aid. They share our concerns and our passion to help students,” Muhammad said. “I know they want to fix these problems as quickly as possible.”
Many financial aid officers and high school counselors share Muhammad’s sentiment that the department is genuinely invested in the success of students. Still, some say the agency could be doing more.
Samantha Hicks, assistant vice president of financial aid and scholarships at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, said the department should temporarily suspend FAFSA verification, an audit widely considered an unnecessary hurdle for low-income students. She also questions why the agency isn’t deploying more people to man its overburdened call centers or moving quickly to fix the technical problems preventing families from completing the FAFSA.
“For the majority of students, once we get through this, they’ll have more access to more aid, which is going to be incredible,” Hicks said. “The changes are ultimately a good thing, but the rollout has been terrible.”