Education Department: 'FAFSA is up and running' after challenging rollout

The Department of Education said that FAFSA is up and running after turbulence in the rollout of a new application. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
The Department of Education said that FAFSA is up and running after turbulence in the rollout of a new application. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

May 31 (UPI) -- The Department of Education is urging student loan borrowers to complete their FAFSA applications following an error-filled rollout of the new application.

Compared to last year, 10% fewer high school seniors have completed the FAFSA application. Advocates for student loan borrowers say that the botched new application process has caused some to put off college, risking the chance of never going at all.


The Department of Education has largely fixed the problems and award letters are being delivered, James Kvaal, department undersecretary, tells UPI.

"We've made a lot of progress. We've processed more than 8 million FAFSA applications," Kvaal said. "Students who come to FAFSA today can expect us to send their records to the school in one to three days. Our focus now is making sure that students know FAFSA is up and running."

People from low-income or mixed-status families -- children of immigrants -- and first-generation borrowers have been the most negatively impacted by application issues. A FAFSA award is more crucial in the decision to attend institutions of higher learning for them, Sayda Martinez-Alvarado, higher education policy analyst with The Education Trust, tells UPI.


"Without a financial aid offer, how are students supposed to make that decision?" she asks. "Because of the very botched rollout, some students are choosing not to go to college at all or choosing to go to a different college than they want to. Because of the delays and errors, there's been a huge erosion of trust in the Department of Education."

The Department of Education promised a revamped FAFSA process for students seeking to attend college in the fall. The new process would streamline parts of the application, such as auto-filling some data including IRS data. This would make the application easier and quicker to complete.

The application typically opens in the fall but it was pushed back toward the end of December. Many students were unable to log on and fewer could successfully complete the application.

Students from mixed-status families had an even more difficult time. If their parents did not have a Social Security number, they were left unable to complete the form.

When forms were completed, there were many cases in which the college did not receive the application and was not able to send an award letter.

These issues continued for months.

Organizations like The Education Trust, Higher Learning Advocates, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and National College Attainment Network have stepped in to provide support to students and administrators who are navigating the FAFSA issues.


Martinez-Alvarado's organization conducts research and creates policy recommendations to increase access to education, particularly for underserved communities. The Education Trust created a hub to help guide borrowers through the FAFSA application because, as Martinez-Alvarado highlights, it can be difficult to parse the large amount of information provided by the Department of Education.

"We have also been hosting quite a few webinars in the education policy, nonprofit space," she said. "We recognize a lot of families just need someone to walk it through with them."

Martinez-Alvarado stressed that there is a counselor crisis in schools, making it difficult for counselors to work one-on-one with students struggling through their applications. With high schools across the country finishing their spring terms in the coming weeks, it is a critical time to ensure applications are completed. She said it is much more difficult to urge students to complete their applications when there is not a point of contact, such as a counselor.

NASFAA is an organization that represents financial aid administrators on college campuses. Senior Policy Analyst Jill DesJean said in an interview with UPI that administrators have had to be flexible throughout the last five months.

The organization has been advising colleges to extend their application deadlines, which DesJean says has largely received a positive response.


"FAFSA opened really late. Then once it opened it was really buggy," DesJean said. "Many students couldn't complete it. Then when that was resolved students couldn't get the data, and when they did it was wrong. Every time we thought it would be OK to make offers to students, some other piece of bad news would come through."

DesJean said there has been a marked improvement over the last month but she is still concerned about the students that have been turned off by the negative experience.

Those students are also on the mind of Tanya Ang, managing director of advocacy for Higher Learning Advocates. Her organization works with other organizations and institutions of higher learning to support students directly and through policymaking.

"Higher education is an opportunity to get the training necessary to increase your economic trajectory throughout life," Ang told UPI. "When you're not able to pursue that, it has an impact not just on them but their families as a whole. I think you also have to consider the impact it will have on the workforce."

Ang called the problems with the FAFSA rollout an "all hands on deck" situation. The Department of Education has responded by announcing FAFSA Student Support Strategy funds. These funds will be used for organizations to make advisers and counselors available for extended hours and during the summer to help students complete FAFSA.


The program is putting up to $50 million toward the effort.

"We're leaving no stone unturned here," Kvaal told UPI.

Catherine Brown, senior director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network, told UPI that many members of her organization are holding FAFSA completion events to encourage borrowers to finish their applications.

A list of resources and events categorized by state can be found on the NCAN website.

While the push for borrowers to finish their FAFSA applications continues, Brown and others are waiting for information about when the application will open for the next school year. Again they are hoping for an Oct. 1 opening but that has not been announced.

"It's critically important for college access programs to know when it's going to come out," Brown said. "One of the challenges last year was the uncertainty."

Kvaal said he understands that it will take effort for the department to regain the trust of borrowers but he again urges that they should be sure to complete their applications.

"You have to deliver reliably to earn people's trust over a period of time," he said. "We've been clear in sharing information with colleges and school counselors in terms of where the FAFSA is and the challenges we're seeing. And trying to be as transparent as we can. Hopefully people will be coming into FAFSA seeing applications processed quickly."


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