FAFSA and college protests take center stage in discussion over proposed education budget for FY25

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona informed senators on Tuesday that he recognizes the frustration expressed by students, families, and colleges regarding the flawed introduction of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). He indicated that he anticipates the department will successfully launch the 2025-26 FAFSA submissions on time by October 1.

Meanwhile, Cardona emphasized that their current focus is collaborating with students, families, high school counseling offices, and college financial aid offices to ensure smooth completion of the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year 2024-25. Colleges rely on FAFSA data to determine their financial aid offerings.

Addressing the delayed and problematic rollout of the federal FAFSA, Cardona affirmed, “The rollout of the federal FAFSA has been riddled with delays and challenges and it’s been something that we’ve prioritized at the Department of Education. We’re doing everything every day to make it right,” during a discussion with the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

The revised FAFSA application aimed to simplify the financial aid application process for students and families; however, due to a delayed launch and technical issues, completion rates have decreased compared to the previous year, leading to inaccuracies and data discrepancies.

Subcommittee Chair Tammy Baldwin stressed the critical need for resolving these issues promptly, stating, “I know you and your staff are working hard to fix these issues, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we get this right.” She highlighted the significance of accessing this aid for higher education opportunities.

Wednesday, May 1 marks college decision day, however, numerous institutions have extended their commitment deadlines due to delays in federal financial aid information dissemination.

Data provided by the Education Department as of April 25 indicates a decrease in FAFSA completions from high school seniors in every state compared to the previous year. States like California, Florida, and West Virginia have witnessed submission rate drops of 25% or more year-over-year.

High school college counseling staff have intensified their support and communication efforts with high school seniors and families to mitigate the confusion arising from the FAFSA complications.

Cardona assured that the Education Department is actively providing daily support to families, students, and college leaders to address the ongoing challenges.

“There’s no excuse,” Cardona emphasized. “Our students deserve better, and I’m committed to ensuring the process functions effectively to enhance access to higher education.”

Free speech and campus safety

Concerns were raised by several senators regarding college student safety amid pro-Palestine protests that transpired recently. While supporting peaceful protests and free speech rights, lawmakers and the education secretary condemned antisemitic rhetoric and unsafe campus environments as “unacceptable.”

Cardona expressed deep concern over the distressing situation on campuses, affirming, “Hate has no place on our campuses, and I’m very concerned with the reports of antisemitism.”

The Education Department disclosed that it is investigating 137 cases under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act pertaining to potential violations involving “national origin discrimination involving religion” at K-12 and higher education levels.

The proposed FY 25 budget seeks a $22 million increase over FY 2023 levels to bolster the Office for Civil Rights enforcement staff.

Protesters from various universities are advocating for colleges to urge a ceasefire in Gaza and divest from companies associated with Israel or profiting from the conflict with Hamas.

As student protesters occupied a campus building at Columbia University, Cardona noted the absence of Education Department personnel at the scene. However, the department increased communications with college campuses to reinforce their obligations in protecting students and emphasized best practices.

Shelley Moore Capito suggested posting a statement from the University of Florida on the Education Department’s website in response to arrests during campus protests, asserting the university’s stance on handling protests.

Chronic absenteeism and mental health

Senators reflected concerns about rising student chronic absenteeism levels and mental health challenges. The FY 25 budget introduces an $8 billion Academic Acceleration and Achievement grant initiative to assist states and school districts in enhancing attendance, tutoring, and summer learning opportunities.

The budget allocation aims to augment the number of school-based counselors, psychologists, social workers, and mental health providers by dedicating $216 million towards K-12 mental health programs, with a portion sourced from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Sen. Chris Murphy highlighted chronic absenteeism as a troubling trend and its correlation with risky behaviors among students.

Cardona emphasized the department’s commitment to addressing chronic absenteeism, working closely with school, district, and state officials, as well as teacher organizations to develop strategies for improving school engagement.

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