FAFSA delay means students will struggle to commit to colleges by May 1

The timeline for colleges and students to make financial-aid decisions will likely be crunched significantly this year after a bumpy roll out of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

The U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday that it would be transmitting families’ financial-aid data to colleges in the first half of March. The information is crucial to colleges’ ability to determine how much aid students will receive. Previously, the agency had said the data would be available to schools in the last week of January. 

Even under that late-January timeline, college counselors and others were concerned students and families would be rushed into making their college decisions. Typically, schools ask students to commit to a school by May 1, but the rollout of the FAFSA form could push them to extend that deadline.

“We think that institutions may decide to give students and families more time and more flexibility to make these decisions, and we certainly support them taking a look at what they can do there,” a senior Department of Education official said on a call with reporters. 

The delay is the latest glitch in the rollout of the new FAFSA form. The document is critical for students, families and colleges when it comes to determining financial aid. Students use the form to apply for federal student loans and Pell grants, the money the government awards to low-income students to attend college. Colleges, states and other organizations use the data in the form to decide how much of their own aid to provide. 

The Department was mandated by Congress to launch the new FAFSA by the end of last year. The effort involved both an overhaul to the document itself and underlying formula used to determine aid eligibility. Students and families struggled to regularly access the form for roughly a week after it first went live. 

The delay in transmitting the FAFSA data is in part the result of a change that will ultimately boost the amount of aid students are eligible for. As part of the FAFSA overhaul, the Department was required to increase the level of income a student family could earn annually and still qualify for the maximum amount of aid. The Department also had to account for inflation when making this change. In the initial rollout of the new FAFSA, the Department didn’t update the amount protected to account for record high inflation in recent years. 

Now, the Department is implementing that change, which will ultimately result in $1.8 billion more in aid for students and about 1.3 million more students receiving Pell grants. But the adjustment is part of what is crunching the timeline for students and families to make decisions this year. 

And the shortened timeline is likely to hit the low-income students who could benefit most from the additional funding hardest. Faith Sandler, the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which funds and works with low-income college students and applicants, said her organization preaches to families not to commit to a school until they know where every dollar they’ll use to attend is coming from. 

The delay in receiving financial-aid offers will delay these students’ ability to commit to a school, she said. “It’s not as though there’s any educational move they can make independently of aid.” 

In addition, organizations like hers, which promise to meet any need unmet by colleges, and federal and state governments, won’t be able to award their funding before initial bills are typically due, Sandler said.  

“It would be unconscionable this year for anyone to have May 1 be a decision day for any student that doesn’t have full pay potential,” she said. 

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