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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Troubled Launch of Federal Student Financial Aid and its Potential Discontent Among Larger Families

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SALT LAKE CITY — Parents of college-bound students are ⁤discovering​ that⁤ the ‌process of filling out financial aid applications can be a bit of a headache. The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which was‍ intended to simplify the process and expand access to college,‌ has proven to be more challenging than anticipated.

Moreover, parents who will have multiple children in college during the 2024-25 academic year may be in for‌ a surprise when it comes to the​ cost.

As reported by CNN, “The FAFSA used to consist of as many as 108⁤ questions. However, with the new form, some applicants⁤ will only need to answer a minimum of 18 questions, which should take less than 10 minutes to complete, according to the ⁤Department of Education. Some data is now directly extracted from a filer’s tax return, eliminating the need for applicants to search for figures on old tax ⁣returns.”

It is projected that an additional ⁢1.5 million students will be eligible for the maximum Pell grant award, which ‍currently stands ⁢at $7,395 per annum.

What’s new with ⁣FAFSA

The revised form now uses a student aid index, which can be⁢ either beneficial or detrimental for families, depending on ‍their income. As CNBC noted, “The new system will allow more low- and moderate-income students to access​ federal grants, but it will also reduce eligibility for some wealthier families.”

Families with more than one⁤ student in college in 2024-2025 may experience additional financial pressure. The so-called “sibling discount,” which previously provided relief for families with two or ‍more children in college simultaneously, has been discontinued.

Instead of dividing the expected ​family contribution to ‌college costs by the number of children in college, each child applying will receive an individual expected ⁤family contribution. This means that financial aid award letters ‌may not meet the expectations of some parents and students.

However, Menaka Hampole, assistant professor of finance at Yale School of Management, told CNBC that this ​creates a “strong case” for appealing the award. She and other⁣ experts suggest that schools are often open to providing more aid on appeal, but families are frequently unaware ‌of‍ this.

The first step is ⁣to contact a school’s financial aid office and inquire about how to appeal a decision. Additionally,​ if another school has made a more attractive offer, a school may be willing to adjust its aid offer.

Rollout complications

The U.S. Department of Education has reported that only 4 million students had submitted ⁢their form by the end ‌of January, a small fraction of⁣ the 17 million typically submitted‍ in ‌a⁤ normal year. Most​ applications are usually completed by this time in a typical year.

On Monday, Feb. 12, the Los Angeles Times reported that “high school seniors and their‌ counselors are describing the situation as chaotic, disastrous, and frightening.”

The article mentioned that “sometimes parents and students would complete the form, but the system would not allow them to create an account, citing an error without ⁤specifying what​ it was. Those who didn’t complete the form on the first attempt or needed to correct ⁢a mistake were locked out.”

Parents without a Social Security number have often been unable ​to submit a form for their children, even if their children have Social Security numbers.⁤ And if someone filling out a form made any⁣ mistake — even⁤ a simple typo — they have to wait to correct it, further delaying their application.⁤ The FAFSA portal will not open for corrections​ until mid-March.

Multiple news outlets have reported on students who have been trying unsuccessfully for weeks, and in some cases a month, to submit their federal financial aid form. Those who attempted to call the U.S. Department of Education’s help line often couldn’t get through or faced extremely long wait times to speak to a representative.

Demands for action

The problematic process has caught the ‍attention of over 100 Democratic ​lawmakers, who have⁢ written to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, urging him to address the issues and ⁤streamline the process, as reported ​by The Washington Post⁢ and other media outlets. “Lawmakers are seeking clarity on how the ⁣department⁢ plans to communicate any further delays in processing the FAFSA and minimize the potential impact on students.”

Republican lawmakers are calling for the Government Accountability Office to investigate. The Post‌ quoted Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Education Committee: “The reason students, parents, and⁢ schools ⁤are scrambling to deal with financial aid uncertainty is because of gross mismanagement by the department.”

Due to the government’s delays in the financial aid process,⁣ schools ⁣like the University of California‍ and California State University have extended their deadlines for first-year students to accept their admission offers for the fall.

Adjusting deadlines, reducing requirements

In a call with reporters, Cardona stated⁤ that his department is⁢ reducing some⁣ of the verification burden it places on colleges and universities so they can concentrate on processing and delivering student aid. The schools have traditionally had to verify income and⁤ other information on a percentage of applications as well as vet their own⁢ processes. ⁣That burden will be lighter for the time being.

“Here’s the ‍bottom line: Fewer requirements for colleges and universities this spring means more time and resources freed up to deliver financial aid for‍ students to make the most of the improved FAFSA,” Cardona said.

The⁢ department made the new FAFSA available three months later than planned. And it now doesn’t plan to send students’ application information to the schools until March, which puts those ⁢schools behind in assigning​ financial ⁤aid and getting students to commit.

Inside Higher⁣ Education reported that “college⁢ officials were underwhelmed by the department’s initial support plan, which includes deploying teams of ⁣federal experts to under-resourced institutions.”‌ It reported that starting ⁢last week, the department selected institutions⁢ for‍ the additional help, using a number of criteria such as the percentage of ​students​ eligible⁢ for Pell grants.

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