Amid news that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is delaying the sending out of student information relevant for financial aid calculations to institutions, higher ed scholars and officials have voiced concern and uncertainty over how this change will affect low-income and first-generation students in particular.
In what has been another delay, ED announced last week that schools and agencies involved in financial aid will receive Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) information – which they use to determine student total financial aid offerings – until the first half of March. This announcement means a two-month setback, since ED had previously said that the FAFSA information, part of the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR), would be sent out “later in January.”
This potentially presents colleges, universities, and other organizations less time to calculate student need-based financial aid packages, which consist of institutional, state, and federal aid. And if schools stick to typical acceptance deadlines of around May 1, this delay may mean an even tighter window for students to weigh prices and pick which of their schools they ultimately want to attend.
"In the best-case scenario now, if mid-March is really March 15th and all data that comes over from the FAFSA is accurate, then colleges and universities could start making award notifications to students early April, which gives [prospective students] about a month,” said Dr. Greg Nayor, vice president of enrollment management at La Salle University. “It really does shorten things up quite a bit."
ED has had several stumbles following an overhaul of the FAFSA form, as mandated by Congress’s FAFSA Simplification Act, starting the 2024–25 award year. The overhaul – which comes with form simplifications, different student aid measures and calculations, and expanded Pell Grant eligibility – is expected to be beneficial and to increase federal financial aid eligibility, according to a 2023 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). Specifically in regard to Pell Grants, almost 220,000 students will gain eligibility in 2023-24, the SHEEO report stated.
However, the changes to how aid is measured will take away grant eligibility for some students as well, namely students with siblings in higher ed. The new FAFSA formula removes the number of family members in college from calculations, and “in many cases,” will make students with college-attending siblings “be eligible for considerably less financial aid,” a 2023 Brookings Institute report stated.
Even before it launched, the 2024-2025 FAFSA form faced criticism for its calculations not accounting for inflation, a now-fixed issue that was part of the reason for this most recent delay. It then proceeded with its pre-announced delayed launch on Dec. 30 instead of the usual Oct. 1. The late “soft launch” took place but several technical issues and limited windows of accessibility – the latter issue was addressed by Jan. 8 – had left applicants frustrated.
Although ED’s latest announcement notes that more than 3.6 million FAFSA applications have been submitted, news of yet another delay adds more fuel to the fire.
According to ED, the overhauled FAFSA form will result in 610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds getting federal Pell Grants and almost 1.5 million more students getting the maximum amount.
But this delay may make some students, particularly first-generation college students who are new to the admissions process, even more wary and hesitant, said Dr. Jorge Burmicky, an assistant professor of higher education leadership and policy studies at Howard University.
"If you're a first-gen college student, and you already went through so much to get your parent's information to fill out the FAFSA and all of that, and now you're hearing that you don't know when you're going to get that information. That's very disorienting,” Burmicky said. “It's really hard to make a decision about whether this is the right year to go to college or not, when we're already having historic levels of people thinking twice about the value of college.”
Knowledge about how much financial aid is being offered affects applicants’ decision-making, he said, adding that this delay will cause students added anxiety, frustration, and fear about a college admissions process that can already be daunting for some.
Burmicky suggested that while students and schools wait for the federal government, institutionsshould proactively communicate to its prospective students to reassure them that their aid packages are still to come and to make them aware of other kinds of institutional and merit-based aid.
In the face of this delay, some schools have opted to use predictive models and forms to sort out financial aid, Nayor said, adding that such options can be only so reliable.
"I think it remains to be seen exactly how much of a challenge it's going to create for individuals, colleges, and universities,” Nayor said. “But I think the one that we know is true is that it's going to affect people unevenly.
“[For] the students who are relying on financial aid much more so than others, the ones who have fewer resources, [potentially first-gen and new to the process], [this delay] can be devastating."
Dr. Karen Stout, CEO of Achieving the Dream, said that this delay will cause issue for low-income applicants who are looking into both community colleges and selective four-year institutions, given that they may not receive aid packages from the latter soon enough to compare as well.
“The concern with the delay in the FAFSA processing is that it will have a disparate impact on first- generation and low-income students and the institutions that serve large populations of underserved students, including HBCUs and HSIs,” said Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). “If deadlines for decisions are not changed, students and parents may feel coerced into making decisions in the absence of complete and adequate information.
While institutions may invite students to work with them after the deadline, "it is daunting to navigate the complexities of financial aid," she said. "The institutions, themselves, will have significant workload issues. Moreover. students from college educated, wealthier families will likely have an advantage in access due to the ability to place multiple deposits down.”
In the aftermath of the delay, ED announced Feb. 5 that it will be provide additional support through financial aid experts and $50 million in federal funding “to help colleges prepare to process student records as quickly and accurately as possible,” particularly schools with fewer resources, smaller number of staff, and older computer systems.
Additionally, as part of this FAFSA College Support Strategy, ED will begin sending out “test versions” of the ISIRs in the next two weeks so that schools can prepare their systems to put together the student aid packages, according to ED.
“Make no mistake: the Better FAFSA is transformational,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel A. Cardona. “We are determined to get this right. We must, and we will. Our hope is that these steps we’re announcing today are going to go a long way toward helping colleges and universities make the most of the Better FAFSA.”