The Department of Education is beefing up resources at certain colleges and financial-aid organizations after weeks of complaints from students, college counselors, schools and congressional Republicans over the delayed launch of the new FAFSA form.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Monday his agency would deploy federal financial-aid personnel to under-resourced colleges, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to ensure the schools have the tools to process federal financial-aid forms. The department is also launching a concierge service within its Office of Federal Student Aid to help a broader array of schools, and is providing $50 million in funding to nonprofit organizations that work on FAFSA processing to assist schools in this work.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is crucial for colleges, students and families in determining the cost of school. The form is used to calculate students’ eligibility for federal grants and student loans. States, colleges and scholarship programs also use the data families input in the document to determine how much of their own money they’ll provide to students.
Through a series of bills, Congress mandated the Department of Education overhaul the form by the end of last year. The idea behind the changes was to make the form faster and simpler to fill out and to increase the amount of financial aid directed to low-income students. But a bumpy rollout for the form has crunched the timeline for colleges and students to make financial-aid decisions.
College counselors, higher-education institutions and congressional Republicans have wondered out loud whether the challenging rollout could leave low-income students in limbo and even deter them from enrolling in college.
Cardona told reporters on a call Monday that part of the reason for the challenges was Congress’s decision not to provide more funding to the Office of Federal Student Aid as it implements the changes. Congressional Republicans have accused the Education Department of prioritizing student-loan forgiveness at the expense of other priorities like the FAFSA overhaul.
“I understand delays have been frustrating for institutions, they’ve been frustrating for me too,” Cardona said on the call. “But let’s keep in mind that we’re overhauling a broken system.
“We’ve been asked to deliver more with less,” he added.
In the first several days following the FAFSA’s launch on Dec. 31, families struggled to even access the form. Then last month, the Department of Education said it wouldn’t be sending the data that households input into the form to colleges until mid-March, weeks later than anticipated. The department initially failed to implement a change to account for inflation in determining students’ aid eligibility. The Education Department is now in the process of fixing the issue, which will result in students receiving $1.8 billion more in aid, but it is a major contributor to the delay in transmitting the data to schools.
As part of Monday’s announcement, the Education Department said it would be sending test batches of student records to schools starting within the next two weeks, so colleges could begin to troubleshoot and prepare their systems.
Still, the delay in transmitting the official records means that colleges are facing a significant crunch in the amount of time they have to design financial-aid offers, and the time that students and families have to make a decision will also be squeezed.
As a result of the obstacles, a coalition of financial-aid and college-access organizations are urging schools to extend their deadlines for when they ask students to commit to a school. In a typical cycle, many colleges ask students to say whether they’ll attend and pay an enrollment deposit by May 1.
On the call with reporters, a senior Education Department official said Cardona has suggested that “it’s prudent” for colleges to look and see if they can give students more time and flexibility to make their decisions.
“Make no mistake, the better FAFSA is going to be transformational, so we’re determined to get it right. We must and we will,” Cardona said Monday.