California campuses aren’t anticipating any relief as FAFSA delays leave students stranded.

The U.S. Department of Education aims to address the challenges associated with this year’s bumpy launch of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and ensure colleges and universities distribute financial aid packages promptly through a new initiative revealed on Monday. However, a sense of doubt lingers among some California campuses regarding the level of assistance they will receive.

This year, about 17 million students nationwide completed the revised form and are eagerly awaiting responses from educational institutions. Last year, over 1 million students in California submitted FAFSA applications, reflecting a 5.9% increase from the previous year, which witnessed a decline due to the impact of Covid-19.

Despite the introduction of a simplified and expedited form in a “soft launch” on December 31, delays of four to six weeks have marred this year’s FAFSA process. Colleges and universities across the nation are not expected to receive students’ financial aid applications until March at the earliest. Consequently, many campuses are contemplating extending the commitment deadline of May 1 for high school seniors whose enrollment decisions are contingent on the financial aid offerings.

“We’re not solely discussing an improved form or system but rather advancing opportunities for over 600,000 American students to access higher education. This initiative presents a better chance for Pell Grant-eligible students to pursue college education,” stated Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, during a press briefing unveiling the department’s strategy on Monday.

“This endeavor aims to make the American dream a reality for a larger segment of the population, enabling them to tap into their immense potential through higher education, mitigating the deterrent of exorbitant costs and the complexities of the existing system.”

As part of the newly revealed strategy, the department plans to dispatch around 50 federal student aid officials to colleges and universities nationwide to help with the preparations and processing of students’ financial aid documents.

Senior officials from the Education Department did not disclose the specific number or list of campuses earmarked for support. They emphasized that priority will be given to campuses with limited resources, including historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges.

The strategy also includes allocating $50 million in federal funds to nonprofit organizations focusing on financial aid support. Additionally, the department will release benchmark data for campuses to utilize.

“Ensuring that our nation’s educational institutions are equipped to facilitate the significant overhaul of the FAFSA is crucial for a seamless implementation, and we are enthusiastic about collaborating on this initiative,” remarked Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, in a statement.

“These changes constitute some of the most substantial transformations within the financial aid sector in decades, presenting challenges for students, families, and professionals alike. Effective collaboration, transparent communication, and trust among stakeholders are vital to successfully transitioning through this reform. We are eager to commence this collaboration and anticipate sharing further details soon.”

However, officials at Cal Poly Pomona expressed skepticism regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s outlined campus support plan and its potential impact on CSU, UC, or community colleges in California. The campus’s associate director of financial aid, Charles Conn, also criticized the timing of the announced measures, suggesting they should have been implemented months prior.

As of now, the UC system has not made a decision on whether to extend the May 1 deadline. Rachel Zaentz, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, informed Inside Higher Ed that the delays could have significant implications on students’ decision-making processes.

While several Cal State campuses have adjusted their timelines in response to the situation, officials stress that this is within their control.

For instance, Cal Poly Pomona has extended the commitment deadline for incoming first-year students to June 1 due to the delays. Jessica Wagoner, the campus’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management and services, confirmed the adjustment.

“It’s disheartening to witness this unfolding and understand the impact it has on students, especially those from first-generation, lower-income backgrounds or those from lower-middle-class families,” Conn stated.

“These students rely on this information, and the Department of Education has let down the graduating class and those looking to transition from community colleges to four-year institutions.”

Traditionally, Cal Poly Pomona finalizes aid offers by the end of February. However, due to issues with student information systems and the Education Department’s delays, offers might not be extended until mid-April this year.

Conn noted that the delays will likely pose challenges for students who need to update their records, with several families still unable to complete the FAFSA, particularly those with a parent lacking a social security number.

“This is a significant population. We’re not talking about a handful of students; potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of students across the system fall into this category,” Conn emphasized.

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