The FAFSA Fiasco

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 03/25/2024

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is a federal aid program which intends to help alleviate the cost of attending college—a program many students rely upon each year. This year, FAFSA has run into major snags that will likely influence the incoming fall class attendance rates across America to disastrous effect. 

The Higher Education Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, marked the inception of federal financial aid for college applicants and laid the groundwork for the evolution of the modern FAFSA system that we recognize today. In the years that followed, financial aid blossomed into a myriad of programs “including loans to students and parents, grants, work-study, tax credits and other state programs.” 

For any unfamiliar, the FAFSA program requires students to apply for federal aid in their senior year of high school for their freshman year of college. Many students submit their FAFSA application in the early fall of their senior year, along with their college applications. Then usually by the end of March at the latest, these students will receive an acceptance letter from colleges and universities along with a comprehensive financial aid offer, encompassing federal, merit, and institutional aid.

Prospective college students well know the headache involved in the application process. The FAFSA is a complicated form with over 100 questions, an asset reporting section, an untaxed income reporting section, and more. For some students, it became a barrier to entry—which in some cases, was not necessarily the worst outcome. But in 2020, Congress shoved a FAFSA redesign into an omnibus spending bill in an effort to make the program easier to access. Some of the planned improvements would have made access to federal aid more accessible for low-income students, allowed for incarcerated individuals the ability to access Pell Grants, and made over half a million more students eligible to receive a Pell Grant. 

But surprise surprise, the “improvements” just threw wrenches into that well oiled machine of government! Who would have thought?

Because of the redesign, students and their families were unable to access the FAFSA form until December of 2023, and more could not access it for weeks after because of technical difficulties. Error messages, random bugs, and more plague the FAFSA form. Instead of students receiving an acceptance letter and financial aid offer no later than the end of March, colleges and universities will not even receive the necessary student information from the Education Department to know the aid provided until March. But the worst part?

Now comes another screw-up. The department on Friday revealed that it had not included ‘all data fields needed to correctly calculate the Student Aid Index (SAI) for dependent students who reported assets,’ resulting in inaccurate information sent to colleges. The department says it will need to reprocess student data but suggested that colleges do their own calculations.  

Due to this grave miscalculation, many colleges and universities have now pushed admissions offers to mid-June—with many more thinking they will have to push that date again. The Wall Street Journal reports that already, only 32.5 percent of high school students submitted a FAFSA form by March 15 of this year, compared to the 47.5 percent last year. Additionally, applications from students who attended low-income high schools were down 38.6 percent. 

One member of the party responsible for this mess is none other than the federal student aid chief Richard Cordray, who made it his mission to further President Biden’s plan to cancel student loans. Cordray “called this year’s FAFSA a ‘better process,’” while attempting to aid in the cancellation of $144 billion in student loans. “[H]e has dunned federal student loan servicers for the government’s chaotic restart of payments after a three-and-a-half-year pandemic pause. He has yet to apologize for any of this.” Clearly he was misguided. 

However, the Education Department and federal government are just, if not more, responsible for the current mess. With sixteen continuing issues, listed by the Federal Student Aid Office, and five more just added on March 20, “with no resolution or workaround,” the challenges to students and higher education institutions are mounting. 

What this means for fall attendance rates has yet to come to fruition, but deductive reasoning dictates that enrollment will be down and potentially continue to go down because of the delays, especially for low-income students—the very individuals this redesign aimed to help most. If the issues are not ironed out and persons held accountable—and swiftly—this government snafu could perpetuate a multi-year decline in admissions and financial loss to colleges and universities. One hopes that this situation will resolve quickly. But knowing the government, students and taxpayers will be the ones paying up.

Until next week.

Editor's Note: a previous version of this article had an inaccuracy regarding the creation date of the FAFSA, which has been updated. 

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by momius on Adobe Stock

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