A fumbled rollout of a new financial aid form leaves FAFSA completion rates low

Two of Iowa’s federal lawmakers advocate for investigating the rocky rollout and how the new form will affect farm families.
A fumbled rollout of a new financial aid form leaves FAFSA completion rates low

WASHINGTON — Jayna Gilman, a University of Iowa first-year student studying human anatomy and physiology, is just one of millions of students nationwide who are unsure how much they may be expected to pay for college this fall after attempting to fill out the new federal financial aid application.

Technical errors and unanswered questions plagued college students like Gilman and high school seniors attempting to navigate the bungled rollout of the updated Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form for the 2024-25 school year.

The form is annually used by colleges and the U.S. Department of Education to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid and typically becomes available in early October.

This year, however, the form wasn’t released until Dec. 30 to give the department more time to complete updates on it. However, technical issues delayed several users’ access to the form until late January.

Gilman said she didn’t get a chance to start filling out the form until Feb. 10, five days before the deadline for maximum financial aid considerations. She expected the form to take hardly any time at all to complete.

Gilman, now married to a noncitizen from the Cayman Islands, said she didn’t expect to run into issues. However, when Gilman sent the link to her husband to fill out his part of the form, they found there was no way for him to register for an account because he did not have a Social Security number.

The U.S. Department of Education did not announce fixes for the issue facing students who have contributors without Social Security numbers until mid-March, but some students can still face difficulties when attempting to submit the form.

“I’m not surprised that they’re not too forgiving for situations like the ones that I’m in,” Gilman said of the difficulties getting help completing the form. “I’m probably going to get less aid this year, even though I really need it. So it left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Gilman is still facing issues filling out her form and has yet to submit the form because of the difficulties.

The new form is the result of a 2020 law that directed the department to simplify the form and included changes to the underlying formula used to calculate financial aid eligibility.

However, with the rollout of the new form beginning months later than required by law and technical difficulties still plaguing the form, many are still struggling to submit their application.

According to data from the National College Attainment Network, an estimated 35 percent of high school seniors nationwide have completed the FAFSA form by March 29.

That’s a sharp drop from 49 percent the year before, falling 14 percent drop in completion rates, compared to a 3.5 percent drop FAFSA cycle. This stark drop shows fewer high school seniors are filling out the form this year, which experts attribute to the fumbled rollout.

Experts say the delayed rollout will affect prospective college first-year students the most, as students from low-income backgrounds depend on financial aid offers from colleges to decide if they can afford to attend. Their college decisions are now delayed due to the technical issues with FAFSA, even as the nationwide May 1 decision deadline rapidly approaches.

Along with a complicated rollout, underlying changes to the aid formula could mean less institutional aid for students with multiple siblings in college. A question asking students to report the net worth of their family’s businesses or for-profit agricultural operations could affect the amount of aid available to those students.

The issues have drawn criticism from Iowa’s U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who have called on the department’s delays and the effects questions about the net worth of families’ assets could have on families who own small businesses or farms.

Technical issues led to delayed rollout

Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

The law directed the U.S. Department of Education to release a new and improved form that reduced the number of questions from 108 to as few as 18 questions for students.

The law gave the department until October 2023 to make the necessary changes to the form so it would be available for the 2024-25 school year.

The department did not meet the deadline. Instead, the form was released in late December 2023, but with severe technical problems leaving the site unusable most of the time.

The form would be up for a few hours each day until late January when the form was up the majority of the time, with students like Gilman still struggling with filling out the form.

The poor rollout prompted dozens of U.S. senators — Democrats and Republicans alike — to sign a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking the office to investigate the reasons for the delay and how much money the department will have to spend to fix the problem.

Ernst and Grassley were among those senators.

Ernst told The Daily Iowan that the rollout was a “disaster” and “not thoughtfully done.” Ernst said her office has spoken with many high school seniors who are considering a gap year because of the bungled rollout and the difficulty with getting financial aid.

“There are many, many young people that we’ve talked to that are considering a gap year because they don’t believe they’ll be able to afford college and this is a real setback,” Ernst said in an interview with the DI on April 10. “The Department of Education has a lot to answer for, and if we see these young people that are deserving take that gap year and then don’t actually follow through and end up going to school, that is an incredible loss for us.”

Grassley echoed Ernst’s remarks, telling the DI that he can’t speak to why things went wrong but “with our big education bureaucracy we have, they ought to have the resources to get it done and get it done on time.”

High school senior applications lag

Fewer high school seniors seniors — an estimated 14 percent — have filled out the FAFSA form than at the same time last year, according to data from the National College Attainment Network.

his is compared to a 3.5 percent decrease from the year before. Applying for FAFSA is typically the second step in the college admissions process just after applying to schools.

That decrease also rings true in Iowa. Only 36.4 percent of high school seniors in the state are estimated to have completed their FAFSA form — slightly above the national average of 35 percent and a 32 percent decrease among Iowa seniors from the previous academic year.

Rick Speer, the career development facilitator at Liberty High School, said the delays and difficulties in submitting the form form have made the college application process harder for families.

“It’s an anxious process in a good year and it has only increased with families that are concerned about their financial situation and how they’re going to pay for college,” Speer said. “They’re waiting longer and that just adds more stress to an already stressful situation.”

MorraLee Keller, the senior director of strategic programming at the National College Attainment Network, said delays have affected all students but drastically impacted low-income students who rely on the financial aid award to see if they can afford college.

Colleges are rushing to get financial aid award letters out

With the delay in the process, colleges and universities across the country are seeing delays in being able to send award letters. Many have pushed back enrollment deadlines — the date by which high school seniors have to make their decision on which college to attend — to give students time to make a decision.

Nalia Medina, a policy associate for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said financial aid offices across the country are coping with “compressed timelines.”

“Our members are definitely feeling the effects of all of the delays and compressed timelines,” Medina said. “… It really does impact in aid office’s ability to get the aid offers out to students.”

UI Assistant Provost of Student Financial Aid Brenda Buzynski said the university didn’t get student information until mid-March, resulting in significant delays to the financial aid and admissions process.

The UI’s priority filing deadline for maximum financial aid consideration was Feb. 15 and its enrollment deadline is May 1 for incoming freshmen.

“The work we [previously] did in January and February and even before that we are now doing right now and working tirelessly to prepare financial aid offers as soon as possible,” Buzynski said. “If all continues to go well, we will have financial aid offers out by the end of April.”

Buzynski said the UI is not seeing a drastic decrease in the number of students who filled out the FAFSA at the same time last year, unlike other Big Ten schools. Buzynski attributed that to the marketing and communication campaign, the Office of Student Financial Aid launched to let students know to file their FAFSA by the Feb. 15 deadline.

Formula could change amount of aid

The change in the formula used to calculate the FAFSA is meant to expand eligibility for the Pell Grant — a form of aid given to low-income students that they don’t have to pay back — by raising the maximum income.

The changes also remove the number of siblings a family has in college from the equation, typically resulting in families receiving more aid if they have multiple siblings in college.

With the removal of the “sibling discount,” students whose families make roughly $70,000 a year would have less aid eligibility if they have multiple siblings, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The higher the student’s family income, the more a student would benefit from the sibling discount, according to the report.

However, the change in the formula will only affect higher-income families and the neediest will not see an effect, Medina with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said.

This is because inside the changes to the formula is an increase to the Pell eligibility for median-income families raising the maximum income level to be considered for a Pell Grant. Under the new guidelines students whose parents make up to 275 percent of the federal poverty level can receive some Pell Grant funds, which experts say will result in more Pell Grant eligibility for median-income students.

“I think what’s important to remember here is that we know that the very neediest of families will not be impacted at all by this change,” Medina said.

Asset questions could mean less aid for farm families

While the new form got rid of almost 100 questions, a new question is causing heartburn for farm families who are asset-rich but cash-poor.

Families are asked to estimate their net assets on the new form if they make enough money. This question could affect the amount of aid that farm families or small business owners are eligible for.

“With any changes to the federal methodology formula, there could be some instances where a student loses some aid but because we are waiting to see what the broad scale impacts will be,” Medina wrote in an email to the DI.

Grassley and Ernst have advocated that the question be removed so that farm families aren’t forced to sell their farms to send their kids to college.

In a letter the senators sent to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, they said a family earning $60,000 a year could face over $41,000 in annual college tuition costs compared to $7,600 under the old formula.

Ernst, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced the Family Farm and Small Business Exemption Act in 2023 which would remove the asset question from the FAFSA.

“[The question] makes no sense,” Ernst told the DI in an interview. “So it does need to return to what it was before. So there are going to be individuals that are asset rich, but cash poor and we need to make sure that they have the same opportunity to go to school.”

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