Why students applying for college financial aid are facing new technical hurdles – PBS NewsHour

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This article was originally published by The 19th on Feb. 15, 2024.
Tayler Monts wasted no time filling out her financial aid form for college. The senior at KIPP High School in Camden, New Jersey, plans to be the first person in her family to pursue a higher education. She got started on the latest Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) shortly after its December 30 online debut.
But she was confused by a question on the form, phrased as a double negative, she said. “I couldn’t go back in to fix it, even though on the website it says that I should theoretically be able to edit it.” She’s tried calling the Federal Student Aid hotline for help to no avail. “The lines are busy, so I’ve never gotten through.”
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The new and shorter FAFSA was supposed to be easier to use. In fact, nearly four million people have submitted the 2024-’25 form since it became available, according to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “And many are getting through those forms in record time,” he said Monday during a press call. For others, the opposite is true. Technical issues have prevented families from revising, completing or submitting the application. Students whose parents lack Social Security numbers are a key group of applicants unable to finish the form because of a system glitch.
A $1.8 billion error in the formula that specifies how much aid students get also caused confusion because it didn’t account for inflation. This led to some students who qualify for financial assistance reportedly being told they did not. The Department of Education has since fixed that problem, but other hiccups remain, leading to fears that colleges won’t be able to process families’ financial data until shortly before the May 1 deadline students generally have to commit to a college. The snafus could see students choosing colleges without knowing the financial assistance they might receive or putting off college because they refuse to take that risk or have lost patience with the process entirely, experts contend.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president of the Education Trust, which advocates for students, especially those of color or with low incomes, to achieve academic excellence. “It’s going to create equity issues, especially for those students who are the most dependent on financial aid, and we know that low-income students and students of color depend more on financial aid to finance their college education. If you don’t know before you have to make a deposit to an institution if you’re going to have enough aid to go, why would you do that? I’m concerned that it’s going to significantly impact the college-going decisions that students are making.”
Each year, roughly 17 million students use the FAFSA — most of whom are young women. During the 2021-’22 cycle, just over 11 million women students applied for aid using the form, compared with about 6.5 million men. Del Pilar fears that vulnerable students might decide to take a year off from college because of FAFSA difficulties, noting that many who paused their higher education when the COVID-19 pandemic began never returned. He doesn’t want to see a repeat of that trend.
Del Pilar, also a former financial aid counselor at Loyola Marymount University, said that colleges can’t even begin putting a student’s financial aid award letter together until they receive the applicant’s financial data from the federal government. Colleges, he added, are desperately waiting to get that information, as are scholarship organizations such as Native Forward Scholars Fund.
“One of the main documents we use to verify [student] need is the FAFSA form,” said Angelique Albert, CEO of Native Forward, which provides scholarships to Native American students. “That will show any awards that they’ve gotten from the federal government. It will show the expected family contributions, and then it will show what is left for them to be able to go to college. So what is their unmet need to go to that particular school — we fund based on that document.”
Errors on the FAFSA or processing delays may restrict the scale of the scholarship a student receives from Native Forward, Albert said. There’s also the matter of the tremendous mental health strain put on students whose futures are often riding on these financial aid outcomes.
These students “feel a lot of anxiety,” explained Destiny Bingham, a counselor at KIPP High School in Camden with a caseload of 75 students applying for college, including Monts. “‘What’s going to happen with my future?’” Bingham said they ask.And I have those concerns, too, because I’ve been working with these students for four years now. We’ve been having these conversations for a long time, and it just looks like the students who are most in need of these resources, who are the reason that FAFSA exists, are unable to benefit from it.”
Monts, who wants to study computer engineering and enroll in a technical college, said that she’s contemplating attending two schools. One is better than the other, she said, but she won’t be able to make a decision until the colleges present her with financial aid award letters based on her FAFSA.
“I want to go to the better school, but the better school is more expensive,” Monts said. “Not knowing how much FAFSA is willing to give me kind of affects that because I don’t want to be in debt for the rest of my life.”
In response to the mounting criticisms about the FAFSA rollout, Department of Education officials announced both this week and last that it is taking steps to ensure that colleges obtain and process student financial data as soon as possible. Those steps include the launch of the FAFSA College Support Strategy whereby the agency is deploying federal personnel to support high-needs institutions such as tribal colleges and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
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“We’re setting up a concierge service,” Cardona said Monday. “We’re allocating $50 million in funding for technical assistance and support, and we’re releasing tools to help institutions by February 16. We will be releasing test versions of student records so that every college can make sure their systems are ready.”
To speed up the financial aid application process, the Department of Education announced Tuesday that an IRS data exchange will allow it to obtain families’ income information from tax records. This will eliminate the need for families to hand over sensitive documentation that requires verification, and the move may especially benefit applicants with undocumented immigrant parents who don’t have Social Security numbers or want to avoid submitting information that would reveal their immigration status. Annually, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $12 billion in taxes.
Despite steps to make the FAFSA process “less cumbersome for families,” as Cardona said, it is unclear when other wrinkles in the rollout of the new form will be ironed out. A department spokesperson on Monday said that the agency did not receive the funding it needs from Congress to hire additional customer service personnel to walk students and their families through FAFSA snags. Additionally, a spokesperson said that the department could not pinpoint when applicants whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers will be able to complete the document. The official did confirm with The 19th that students in that predicament may fill out a paper FAFSA.  
“Our hope is to make the online form available to all families, including parents without Social Security numbers, in the coming weeks,” the official said. “Although the paper form is an option for families now, waiting for the online form is another alternative that could be easier for many families.”
Since paper applications are reportedly processed after their digital counterparts, some experts say that completing the FAFSA virtually is still the best option. But simply connecting to the internet is often a challenge for Native Forward scholars, Albert said. Many live in rural communities without broadband access, so the organization makes special arrangements for them to complete their financial aid forms online.
“They’re not even able to do it from their phone because they don’t have that access,” Albert said. “We have the student emergency fund, and from that fund, we’ve paid for scholars to have gas money to travel into cities so that they could have access to the internet. That is a problem in some of our communities. I think that’s something that we need to address on a broader scale.”
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Shavar Jeffries, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, which trains educators to teach in its national network of public charter schools, said that students and their families don’t have a moment to lose when it comes to the FAFSA, the newest version of which came out months later than standard. Typically, the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year is available October 1. Given the delays and the rollout difficulties, Jeffries would like the government to get applicants the information they need promptly. Since many KIPP students are from economically disadvantaged communities and among the first members of their family to go to college, he doesn’t want them to face additional barriers.
“Every day that there is a delay, it definitely increases the risk that some number of young people who can attend and graduate from college won’t be able to do so,” he said.
On Monday, education leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as 106 of their colleagues, urged Cardona to address the issues with the new FAFSA in a letter led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott. Sanders chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and Scott is a ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The lawmakers asked the Education Department to clarify how it will inform the public of further delays in FAFSA processing and to provide clear timelines about its plans so families can make the best decisions about higher education for their children.
The updates to the FAFSA are expected to help an additional 610,000 students qualify for a federal Pell grant, and another 1.5 million students qualify for the maximum Pell award, the lawmakers noted. But they also pointed out that the problems with the 2024-’25 FAFSA rollout stem largely from the fact that the Department of Education didn’t receive sufficient funding to release a new form after Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020 to ease the process for millions of applicants.
“The federal government wanted to make the FAFSA form more simple because it can be a bit convoluted at times — and to make it easier for families to fill out and to make it easier for higher education institutions to provide accurate, clear information to families about financial aid awards,” Jeffries said. “That was very well intended. Unfortunately, the execution of those intentions hasn’t been ideal.”


Left: Each year, roughly 17 million students use the FAFSA — most of whom are young women. Photo via Getty Images
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