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‘Bumpy’ FAFSA rollout leads to frustration for college applicants

(The Hill) – The launch of new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms has hit some snags, leading to trouble and frustration for students and colleges.  

The FAFSA applications were released at the end of December — already a delay from the normal October — due to the changes made by the Department of Education.  

The department was tasked with creating a FAFSA form that was quicker to complete and easier for students and families to understand since the old one could take families hours to finish and made it difficult for them to understand if they filled it out correctly and received all the aid they could get.

When the department said at the beginning of December the new forms would have a “soft launch,” experts knew issues were bound to arise.  

“When we saw that they were going to do this soft launch, that was an indicator to us that internally the Department of Education thought that there might be some issues when [the FAFSA forms] did roll out,” said Karen McCarthy, vice president for public policy and federal relations at National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.  

Limited access to applications 

At first, only a few people could access the forms.  

The department cautioned against everyone running to fill out the applications right away as its website could not handle it and some individuals had to be stuck in a waiting room to not overwhelm the site.  

Last Thursday, the department said about half a million people had been able to successfully submit their forms.  

“The first weekend that it was open was very challenging, and there was such a limited time that the FAFSA was actually open. The Department of Education has been gradually increasing the hours per day that it is open and available. I think that they will shortly be getting to the point where it will just stay open and available like it does in in normal time,” McCarthy said.  

While she believes the issues with accessibility will fade in the next few days, other problems seem to be waiting in the wings. 

The Hill has reached out to the Department of Education for further comment.

Issues with the forms 

The next stop for the new applications will be working through the bugs with the forms themselves now that more students and families will be able to access them.  

“There are some reporting issues that the department is trying to resolve that affect certain subpopulations of FAFSA completers so some folks are seeing some issues, some of which are more minor, some of which are bigger,” McCarthy said.  

On Thursday, the department released an “open issues” list of some of the problems students are flagging with the form.  

Some of the problems on the list include students not able to submit a form after accidentally selecting “eligible noncitizen,” issues with parents listing their countries of birth and parents with no Social Security number being unable to start or contribute to the forms.  

However, the promise of a faster and easier form seems to ring true for many who are applying.  

“We are definitely seeing that it is far less burdensome than the previous FAFSA cycles,” said Nicole Boelk, director of Financial Aid & Scholarships at Oakland University. 

Her school has hosted financial aid nights and have been helping students in the financial aid office complete the forms and found “students get through the FAFSA in as fast as 10 minutes.” 

Time crunch for financial aid offers, student decisions 

The final issue with the applications comes with the time crunch for schools to present financial aid offers and students to make decisions on which schools to go to due to the late release of the forms.  

And it is unclear how the troubles at the beginning of the soft launch could affect the timeline even more.  

“Schools are not getting any processed FASFAs from the department yet and considering how bumpy the rollout was of the actual FAFSA … we are … It’s a reasonable question for us to ask if the department does still plan to get those processed FAFSAs out to schools later this month, or if there will be a further delay on that,” McCarthy said.  

Once a person submits a FAFSA form, it will take a few weeks for the selected schools to receive the information. The school then needs to process that information and send a financial aid offer to the student. 

Boelk said her school is trying to get together a net price calculator for students to look at so they can have some idea of what a financial aid package for them would look like beforehand, but the time from the students would get the final offers to when students need to make a decision on whether to go to a school will be tight.  

“Our biggest concern right now is the compressed period of time in which students will have financial aid offers available to them to make decisions on where they’re going to attend,” Boelk said. 

Some schools still have to set up the software systems for the new forms, with some places not even receiving the software yet, according to Boelk.  

The best advice Boelk has for students is to stay informed and contact financial aid offices when they need help.  

“My word of advice would be to, of course, complete the FAFSA, look at the different schools net price calculators that could be used as a tool to get an estimate of what you could expect and then to really just talk with the financial aid offices on expectations for when they might be notified, what the next steps are, what a typical financial aid package for a family situation might be,” Boelk said. 

“If there’s uncertainty just have those conversations with the financial aid offices at those schools,” she added.  

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