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College Decisions Delayed. Thanks, FAFSA!

Duke University. "College Decisions Delayed. Thanks FAFSA!"

Today is May 1st. In an alternate reality where the U.S. Department of Education hadn’t completely botched the FAFSA form update, roll-out, and processing, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors would have signed on the dotted line and committed to a college. Today should be “College Day,” but instead, many students are in limbo and hundreds of colleges have now moved deadlines twice: first to May 15th and then to June 1st. 

If you don’t know the lingo: the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the “largest source of financial aid” for students in terms of scholarships, grants, work-study funds, and loans. The FAFSA process normally involves 1) filling out the FAFSA in December and January, as you fill out college applications; 2) receiving funding information from colleges after FAFSA processing in March; and 3) making a decision May 1-15, depending on the college.

Essentially, due to a myriad of problems, some FAFSA forms are still in process while others require corrections. At least 2 million applications required recalculation and retransmission to colleges.

Even worse is that the number of FAFSA forms submitted is way down compared to previous years, particularly among lower-income students who would most benefit from college financial aid.

Many I have talked to who have received their Student Aid Index (SAI) have found that they qualify for no aid; however, colleges and other organizations offering scholarships, etc. have been waiting for the FAFSA, so everything is delayed. If you are in this boat, check out an interesting Reddit thread that covers many people’s experiences with FAFSA processing and corrections needed.

College students walking to class

My own child has been deliberating among three colleges, one in state and two out of state, but the lack of clarity from these colleges about fees and funding has made his decision more difficult. I can only imagine how other families are feeling, particularly those who lack financial stability and/or 529 plans. Merit and need scholarships run the lives of most families when it comes to college decisions–it is not just about where to go, but if students can afford to go to college.

Additionally, for students on the waitlist, their college opportunity has been delayed even further into the future. They have to make a difficult decision about where to put a deposit, as they wait to find out from their dream school.

Frustration Financial Aid: A Family Guide to the New FAFSA and Princeton dorm welcoming Freshmen

During this FAFSA frustration, I’ve made a new friend at my high school: Shari and I met on the PTSO page when so many of us were commiserating about the ridiculous rollout. She and I helped each other through the process, sharing tips and tricks, many of which I added to my January Frustrating Financial Aid: A Family Guide to the New FAFSA blog. In fact, Shari was the “friendly parent” referred to in that blog. 

Shari’s perspective as a parent experienced with the previous FAFSA form was immensely helpful and reassuring, something every parent needs when they are sharing their most sensitive personal information besides their weight with a stranger. Telling a faceless bureaucrat how much money is in your bank account and hidden under your mattress feels quite invasive.

What this means is that many families are finding out that the do not qualify for need or merit scholarships, which makes one wonder who does qualify, particularly when estimates can range from about $40,000 (Virginia, in-state Virginia) to around 100,000 per year for elite private colleges (note: includes tuition, room and board, fees, books, and expenses). Few families have that kind of money lying around, even those who were able to invest in 529s.

For many students, college financial award letters remain “in the mail” and all families feel distrust for the process and the outcome. The U.S. Department of Education has a lot to answer for, and they will need to work hard to build confidence in the form and process for next year.


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