It may be another few months before millions of students and families know how much they’ll have to pay for college this fall.
The troubled rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form — and the revision of the formula for determining who gets federal financial aid — got worse on Tuesday when the Department of Education announced that it would not transmit data to schools until early March. The figures were supposed to start arriving the next day.
Many schools rely on the FAFSA to help them determine how much of their institutional money to give out in the form of grants that students will not have to repay. So until they have the information, any attempt to offer a price quote to current or recently admitted students may be just a rough estimate.
This delay is a particular problem for low-income students, for whom a few thousand dollars of difference can determine whether they start school at all or finish a program that they’ve already begun.
One reason for the delay is that the Education Department was late in updating some of its calculations for inflation. Completing that work means that 1.3 million people will get larger Pell Grants — the money the federal government makes available to lower-income students — than they would have otherwise.
The delay, however, disrupts the work of harried financial aid officers at schools, who are trying to digest the biggest changes to the system in decades without shutting it down during the reboot.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a group that represents aid officers, said in a statement that the “continued delays — communicated at the last minute — threaten to harm the very students and families that federal student aid is intended to help.”
The actual harm will depend on how nimble his members are once they get the data from the government — and the patience of families trying to make enormous financial decisions without a clear sense of the price. “Because of the delay, current and newly admitted students will not know their estimated financial aid offer until very late in the spring semester,” Keith Williams, executive director of Michigan State University’s financial aid office, said in an email.
One big concern is that some low-income or first-generation students will just throw up their hands and not bother to complete their applications.
“It’s not hyperbolic to say that these kinds of delays directly impact how students make decisions,” said Jon Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, a university trade group.
According to the department, more than 3.1 million people have already filled out the FAFSA. One group that hasn’t, however, is students who have a parent who does not have a Social Security number. It isn’t clear why, one month after the new FAFSA form became available, those students still cannot complete the process.
The Education Department has faced a number of unusual challenges in the past year on top of the FAFSA overhaul. Last year, it had to restart the machinery to collect student loan payments after a multiyear pandemic payment pause, and it has also been changing the way it oversees the servicers that collect those payments. The department had asked Congress for more money to help it complete all of the work, but it did not get any extra money for the tasks.