Millions of students face tight deadlines to evaluate college financial aid options

Mercedes Amaya is striving to maintain a positive outlook, with the emphasis on “striving.”

During the day, she holds the position of associate vice provost at Miami Dade College, where a significant portion of her time is dedicated to concerns about financial aid for the tens of thousands of students enrolled. At night, she assumes the role of a mother, attempting to apply her expertise to guide her son through the college application process.

While applying for financial aid can be stressful under normal circumstances, this year has proven to be exceptionally challenging for Amaya, both personally and professionally. This is due to the fact that the Education Department introduced long-awaited improvements to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in December. The FAFSA is a critical component of the higher education system, utilized by millions of American families and thousands of colleges each year.

However, the implementation of these changes has been plagued by delays and unforeseen issues. The most recent setback occurred when the Biden administration announced that colleges and state agencies would not receive students’ FAFSA information until at least the “first half of March.” Initially, federal officials had informed schools that they could expect to receive this data by late January.

In a typical year, schools would have already possessed this data several months in advance.

Read more: Colleges will have to wait longer for FAFSA data, in latest frustration with rollout

This announcement followed the admission from the Department of Education that a major error had been made in the new FAFSA form. This error resulted in families’ incomes not being accurately adjusted for inflation. The department has pledged to rectify this oversight. However, this glitch has thrown the timeline into disarray once again. As a result, students may not receive financial aid offers from colleges until April, just before the common May 1 commitment deadline.

In other words, millions of students may find themselves faced with one of the most significant decisions of their lives in a matter of weeks.

“We’re going to have to adapt,” Amaya stated to USA TODAY. For the students she works with, she acknowledges that there is little choice. “It is what it is.”

This fiasco raises concerns about the trade-offs the Biden administration is making in its attempts to overhaul the financial aid system for college students before the end of President Biden’s first term. The Department of Education has made bold claims about how their efforts will make an additional 610,000 students eligible for financial aid.

However, it remains to be seen how many vulnerable students may be discouraged from pursuing or continuing their college education as a result of the botched rollout.

“Only time will tell whether it was worth it,” Amaya remarked.

In a statement to USA TODAY, Education Department spokesperson Johanny Adames expressed the administration’s tireless efforts to increase access to college for more students.

“These are the most significant changes to the financial aid system in over 40 years,” said Adames. “And we’ve made these changes with flat funding from Congress and no budget in sight four months into the fiscal year.”

March delay presents a significant challenge

Colleges are now facing widespread calls to extend the traditional May 1 deadline.

Some have already heeded this call. For instance, Oregon State University announced this week that it would postpone the deadline for advanced tuition deposits for incoming freshmen by one month. The university explained in a statement that the original May deadline would place impossible constraints on parents and students.

USA TODAY contacted 50 colleges and universities with the largest enrollment numbers in the United States via email and phone. Some institutions stated that they were reassessing the feasibility of the May deadline. Others are adopting a wait-and-see approach or have already established their own cutoff dates.

“This year has been incredibly frustrating,” acknowledged Rachelle Feldman, the vice provost of enrollment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “March is truly throwing us a curveball.”

Feldman revealed that she and other college administrators had been warning the Department of Education for months about the inflation issues related to the new income formula. However, instead of engaging in earlier communication with schools, the agency only addressed the error at the last minute.

When will FAFSA be processed? As the Education Department fixes the formula mistake, applicants may experience further delays

Even after the fix, the form is still not without flaws. Parents who lack social security numbers are unable to submit the FAFSA, disproportionately impacting immigrant families. Angie Jaral, a 19-year-old freshman at National Louis University in Chicago, has yet to submit her form because her stepfather does not possess a social security number.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she shared with USA TODAY. “I need to figure this out.”

Angie Jaral, a student in OneGoal, an advising program that supports students from low-income backgrounds, is one of many students struggling with the new FAFSA form.

The Department of Education asserts that they are working on resolving this glitch, although no specific timetable has been provided.

“This will undoubtedly be a challenging time for everyone,” stated Jose Aviles, the vice provost for enrollment management at Temple University, a private college in Philadelphia.

Temple University recently announced a generous new financial aid program that guarantees tuition and fee coverage for freshmen students from Philadelphia County whose families earn $65,000 or less per year. Aviles believes this news will lessen the burdens faced by Temple applicants who may have encountered difficulties with the FAFSA. If they meet these criteria, he assures them that they will already have a good understanding of their financial aid offer.

However, not every college has the resources to provide the same level of reassurance to families. Ultimately, smaller colleges with limited resources may bear the brunt of the ongoing delays, according to Jon Boeckenstedt, the vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.

“We are a large institution,” he commented in reference to his university. “We have considerable capabilities to address this problem.”

Unfortunately, other schools may not be as fortunate.

Federal watchdog initiates audit of FAFSA rollout

The stakes surrounding the FAFSA controversy were heightened when a federal government watchdog confirmed that it would grant the request by congressional Republicans to audit the delays. Charles Young, a spokesperson for the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, confirmed via email that the agency is investigating the matter.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a frequent critic of President Joe Biden’s education policies, was one of the legislators who requested the GAO audit. During a press conference on Thursday, Cassidy asserted that the chaotic rollout could dissuade some students from pursuing a college education entirely.

“Many students may forego college because they are unaware of their financial options,” he noted. “That is the issue here.”

Education Department spokesperson Adames informed USA TODAY that the Biden administration has repeatedly sought additional financial aid funding from congressional Republicans without success.

“Despite their criticism and opposition,” Adames stated, “we are making college more accessible.”