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FAFSA filings are way down, raising fears that some students won’t go to college this fall

<i>Jae C. Hong/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at the University of California
Jae C. Hong/AP via CNN Newsource
Students sit on the lawn near Royce Hall at the University of California

By Katie Lobosco, CNN

Washington (CNN) — The share of high school seniors who have submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is down significantly this year, raising concerns that some low-income students won’t be able to afford to enroll this fall.

Students still have time to submit the FAFSA, which they must do to be eligible for federal grants and loans as well as financial aid offered by states and schools. But the typical May 1 college decision deadline is fast approaching. Some schools have pushed back the date, but others are requiring students to pay their deposits soon to reserve their spot.

“We’re on track to have a very bad year,” said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at the National College Attainment Network who analyzes data on FAFSA filings.

“It’s not just a question of where students will go to college; it’s a question of whether a lot of students are going to go to college or not,” DeBaun said.

Congress mandated that a new version of the FAFSA be released by 2024. The overhaul was intended to make the whole process of applying for financial aid simpler. But the rollout has been plagued by delays, numerous technical glitches and administrative mistakes.

Just 37% of high school seniors had submitted the form through April 12, compared with 50% of the prior senior class at the same point last year, according to NCAN.

Even fewer students have been able to successfully complete the form, largely because the Department of Education did not provide the functionality to make corrections or updates until mid-April.

DeBaun is worried that students who may need help with filling out the form are less likely to have support after high school graduations, which in some parts of the country take place in a matter of weeks.

The drop in FAFSA completions is not the same across the board. There has a been a bigger decline among students who may need the aid the most: at lower-income schools and schools with a higher percentage of minority students, according to the NCAN data.

“This has been a challenging year. We’re not at the point we would like to be at,” James Kvaal, undersecretary at the Department of Education, said on a call with reporters earlier this week.

Problems with the new FAFSA

The rollout of the new version of the FAFSA was delayed. The form wasn’t available to until three months later than the usual October 1 date.

Once students and families could access the form, they experienced a number of glitches. For example, parents who don’t have Social Security numbers had problems starting a form for a student or contributing to one their child already started.

Further problems on the backend and a last-minute change to the aid calculation meant that colleges did not receive any FAFSA information until March, even if a student submitted the form back in January. Once colleges received the data from the Department of Education, there were errors with some of the information, and many must be reprocessed.

As of last week, about 40% of the forms colleges had in hand were unusable, according to Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

That means that colleges have not been able to develop financial aid packages for many students.

Who’s to blame?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The Biden administration has said that this was a huge undertaking – one that not only transformed the FAFSA form itself, but the calculations and backend processing system as well – and that its requests for more funding from Congress were not met.

Republicans argue that the Department of Education was too focused on implementing Biden’s student loan forgiveness policies and let the FAFSA work fall to the wayside.

The Department of Education has been facing criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for the delays, and the Government Accountability Office has started an investigation into the new form’s implementation.

Two Democrats, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon, have turned their attention to General Dynamics, which received a $122 million contract to help modernize the FAFSA system. The lawmakers sent a letter to the company earlier this month demanding answers about its role in the process.

The new FAFSA is easier and faster to fill out than the previous version, which could be a maximum of 108 questions. Now, some applicants have to answer as few as 18 questions.

The changes were also meant to make more students eligible for more federal financial aid. The Department of Education estimated that 610,000 more students will qualify for a federal Pell grant – which is awarded to those from low-income families – on an annual basis. And an estimated 1.5 million more students will be eligible for the maximum amount, which typically changes each year.

But the fear is that problems with the rollout could hurt those students who stand to benefit the most from the changes to the form.

“Sadly, the holdup with this law raises questions about whether going to college in the fall is even doable for those who can’t foot the bill,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, said at a recent House hearing on the subject.

“Students needed their financial aid information months ago to make college decisions, yet many still don’t have that information today,” Wilson added.

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