Financial Aid Uncertainty Casts Shadow Over College Acceptances

By Jennifer Wentworth | Monday, 19 February 2024 11:10 PM
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The exhilaration of college acceptance letters for many students this year is being overshadowed by a looming uncertainty regarding their financial aid eligibility.

The usual financial aid decisions accompanying acceptance letters are experiencing delays due to the tardy rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form utilized by schools to calculate financial aid.

This delay has resulted in students and their parents postponing their college decisions. "We are not going to make a decision without knowing what we’re committing to financially; it would be irresponsible to do that," expressed Jenny Nicholas from Keene, New Hampshire, who is keen on ensuring her high school senior son attends a college that is financially feasible for their family.

The Education Department had promised that the revised form would be simpler for parents to complete and would employ a new formula to determine aid eligibility, taking inflation into account. However, the form was not ready by October, the usual release month for the upcoming school year. A soft launch in December revealed difficulties in accessing the form, and the initial release did not include the updated inflation tool.

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The delay means that schools will not receive the necessary information to award financial aid until next month, compelling them to adjust their timelines. Some have shifted away from the traditional May 1 deadline for students to accept admission offers.

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Virginia Tech, for instance, announced last week that it had extended its admissions deposit deadline for first-year college students to May 15. "Understandably so, families are concerned about the FAFSA process this year, and they are telling us that they need more time to make fully informed decisions," stated Juan Espinoza, interim vice provost for enrollment management.

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The university anticipates notifying families about financial aid by mid-April. "We can’t make a decision until we see a financial aid package," said Agata James, a mother of a New York high school senior from Queens. "Everything is in limbo."

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James' son is caught between two colleges, one in his home state and the other an out-of-state dream school. However, James asserts that the final decision will hinge on what she can afford without incurring substantial student loan debt.

The Education Department has pledged to mitigate the impacts of these delays, with measures such as reducing verification requirements, dispatching federal experts to under-resourced schools, and allocating funds for technical assistance to non-profit groups.

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"We are determined to get this right," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona declared in a statement this month. "We must, and we will."

Over 17 million students utilize FAFSA annually to secure financial aid for their college education. As of mid-February, more than 4 million forms have been successfully submitted, according to the department.

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Despite the Education Department's assurance of a simpler application, some students and parents are still encountering difficulties in filing. Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, reported that he has been unable to submit his form due to an error in the parent portion of the application.

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"It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved," lamented Noyola, who relies on grants and work-study to finance his education.

Other errors have been associated with Social Security numbers, according to Travis Hill, director for Dallas County Promise, a college success program in Texas. Parents without legal immigration status are unable to submit their portion of the application as they lack a Social Security number. Other parents are also experiencing errors linking their Social Security number with their child's FAFSA application.

"I’m feeling stressed," admitted Lorenzo Jaramillo, a 17-year-old high school senior aspiring to major in computer engineering. Despite residing in Toronto, Jaramillo, a U.S. citizen, is eligible for financial aid.

Helen Faith, director of the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed concern that the delays could adversely affect both students and schools. "What ends up happening is that our underrepresented and most fragile populations are the ones that are disproportionately affected," Hill concluded.

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