College Financial Aid Scramble

by Lora Kelly

The Atlantic

A plan to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process, better known as FAFSA has been a few years in the making. In 2020, as part of a spending bill, Congress ordered the Department of Education to create a shorter version of the FAFSA form. The new application would reduce the maximum number of questions from 108 to 36.

Rose Horowitch writes, the goal was to make things easier for applicants, increase the number of students who could receive federal aid, and resulting in “a rare win for bipartisan and common sense governance.” In recent months, the new FAFSA rollout has met roadblocks and delays at almost every turn. The form was to launch in October. It didn’t open up until the very end of December. Even after the soft launch, many families encountered various lockouts and issues. A student’s parents not having Social Security numbers could struggle to submit the form.

Late last month and around the time when many students were receiving admissions decisions, some 2 million FAFSA forms were in purgatory, Rose reported. The FAFSA fiasco, my colleague Adam Harris told me, is “a result of the administration overestimating the resources it would have at its disposal. As a result they underestimated the time, people, and needed (in that order) to complete an inherited overhaul.” Adam further explains the lack of resources, combined with missed contractor deadlines and miscommunication, led to a bungled process.

The botched rollout has posed problems for students comparing financial-aid offers before they commit to a university, Sandy Baum, an expert on higher-education financing and a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told me. The stakes are even higher for students who are on the fence about enrolling: This fiasco may “transform the life of somebody who just says, 

Well, I guess I’m not going to be able to go to college at all.”

As of April 12, only 29 percent of high-school seniors had completed their FAFSA forms, down from more than 46 percent last year at the same time. This according to data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). Baum suggested that some of the dropoff was because people ran into so many roadblocks they just gave up. But others were also likely scared away from even trying. Sandy Baum “Everybody has heard about this problem.” The decline has been especially stark at schools where many students of color and low-income students are enrolled, according to NCAN.

None of this is likely to help the perception among some students that college is out of reach. Recent news stories reported that certain colleges are on the brink of costing six figures a year, including tuition, housing, and personal expenses. Many students at public and private institutions do not actually pay the sticker price after factoring in grants, loans, and other aid. Most colleges do not charge nearly that much—but not everybody knows that, Baum said.

Education professor at the University of Pennsylvania Laura Perna, the FAFSA debacle collides with a number of other higher-education issues. In 2022, the number of young students enrolled in college  dropped by roughly 1.2 million from its 2011 peak Polling shows many people are questioning the value of higher education. Perna worries this year’s financial-aid fiasco might diminish trust in the FAFSA system. A system which requires families to submit a huge amount of personal information.