The sole application for receiving college financial aid has had a rocky rollout this year — and it means reward letters will be delayed by months.
On Tuesday, the Education Department announced that it won’t be sending students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, forms to schools until early March. That’s two months after it previously said it would begin sending over that data.
The delay means that it could take until April for some families to learn how much financial aid they’ll receive — just one month before students have to confirm which college they’ll be attending in the fall.
This delay is a result of the Education Department’s efforts to overhaul the FAFSA form to make it simplified for families and students. While the form was released on October 1 in prior years, the new release was delayed nearly three months later as the department was implementing a “soft-launch” of the form.
The latest delay in receiving financial aid awards can be attributed to the department’s efforts to update FAFSA qualifications to expand families’ financial aid eligibility. Specifically, the department said it would update FAFSA’s “Student Aid Index,” which determines how much a family can afford to pay for college. When the new FAFSA form was soft-launched, the formula relied on inflation figures from 2020, and the update is expected to open up an additional $1.8 billion in federal student aid.
However, that’ll take time — and could leave some families in a time crunch when it comes to evaluating their financial aid packages.
“The Better FAFSA makes it as simple and easy as possible for families to get help paying for college, and updating our tables will help even more students get the help they need,” Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal said in a statement. “Updating our calculations will help students qualify for as much financial aid as possible.”
The delay has sparked concern among higher education advocates who say it’ll leave insufficient time for families to make major financial choices.
“On the very day that schools were expecting FAFSA applicant information, they were instead notified by the U.S. Department of Education that they shouldn’t expect to receive that data until March, at the earliest,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said in a statement.
“These continued delays, communicated at the last minute, threaten to harm the very students and families that federal student aid is intended to help,” Draeger said.
Nine higher education groups also called for colleges to extend the financial aid deadline beyond May 1 to accommodate for the delays, saying in a joint statement that “we all want students and families to have the time they need to consider their financial options before making enrollment decisions.”
The Education Department said it would continue to update schools and stakeholders on FAFSA progress as it prepares to send information to schools in the first half of March. So far, 3.1 million applications have successfully been submitted, the department said.
GOP lawmakers requesting FAFSA oversight
The precarious FAFSA rollout has prompted a number of Republican lawmakers to request additional information on why these delays are happening.
On Tuesday, top Republican on the House education committee Virginia Foxx and chair of an education subcommittee Burgess Owens sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona requesting additional information on how it’s rolling out the new FAFSA forms.
“Though the FAFSA is available today for completion, the Department itself has admitted that students and families are still unable to complete the FAFSA because of an extensive list of technical issues,” they wrote. “Many of the issues have no current workarounds.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, also released a statement on Tuesday saying that “these unacceptable delays from the Biden administration creates the real likelihood that many students will forgo college because they cannot choose a school without knowing their eligibility for student aid.”
Cassidy and Foxx led 26 of their colleagues in requesting last week that the Government Accountability Office investigate the Education Department’s FAFSA rollout, saying the delays could particularly harm low-income students who depend most on financial aid.
The department has not yet commented on the investigation and said it will continue moving forward with simplifying FAFSA for families reliant on financial aid.
“We remain committed to ensuring students and families have stable and secure access to more than $114 billion in federal financial aid,” Federal Student Aid Chief Richard Cordray said in a statement.
“We know how crucial this support is to pursue higher education, particularly for the most underserved communities, and the positive ripple effects an education beyond high school makes in the lives of millions, their communities, and the country,” he said.