FAFSA fiasco: Financial aid form meltdown trips up students, colleges

University of Massachusetts Amherst campus

University of Massachusetts Amherst campus FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-24-2024 10:53 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A continued challenge for some prospective students and their families in accessing federal financial aid applications, and a corresponding delay in relaying the information from these forms to colleges and universities, is raising concerns about whether members of this fall’s freshmen classes will get timely information about grants, loans, scholarships and employment opportunities.

The difficulties for some in accessing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, simplified forms is forcing many higher education institutions to extend their submission deadlines, especially since data from completed forms won’t start being received from the Department of Education until sometime in March.

“Making them wait longer to get financial aid creates anxiety and frustration,” says Karen Hildalgo, who chairs Northampton High School’s guidance department. “It has definitely been frustrating for our students and their families how many changes and delays there have been with FAFSA.”

It’s also something Deidre Cuffee-Gray, the college and career adviser at Amherst Regional High School, is seeing, describing the help she is offering as navigating “the FAFSA morass.”

While colleges are also frustrated, Hidalgo said, they are adapting by pushing various dates for students, including extending their financial aid deadlines.

“Some have provided tentative aid packages based on their own forms. Others have either changed decision day, traditionally May 1st, or have created an option for students to change their minds after decision day, to give students time to compare aid packages,” Hidalgo said.

At Amherst College, Matthew McGann, dean of admission and financial aid, said the office has been getting more calls this winter, many from concerned families. “The issues with FAFSA has been causing anxiety with most of the college-going population this year,” McGann said.

Even so, the college is preparing to release most of its admission decisions in about a month.

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“We are confident that students will receive a full and complete financial aid offer,” McGann said, observing that three in five students at Amherst College, which has a need-blind admission process, receive aid from the college. “They will know the cost of attending.”

The college, like other peer institutions, uses the CSS Profile, or College Scholarship Service Profile, which it helped to develop, alongside Harvard and Wesleyan, in 1953.

Joanna May, Smith College’s vice president for enrollment, said Smith also uses the CSS Profile, making it less affected by the delay than colleges and universities that use just FAFSA to determine financial aid eligibility.

“We will use the information on the CSS Profile, along with tax returns, to make financial aid determinations, and will get financial aid packages to students on time as planned,” May said.

Still, like other colleges and universities, May said Smith College has heard from students having difficulty completing the FAFSA, and the college is doing its best to reassure them that these challenges will not affect their admission or financial aid at Smith.

Smith College has made proactive changes to the usual communication to students in an effort to decrease student anxiety, and is encouraging all students and families to contact student financial services with any questions, May said.

“We have developed standard language when replying to student inquiries, updated our website with a FAFSA message and are not listing the FAFSA requirement in our student portal or requiring it to complete a financial aid application for an initial financial read,” May said.

Most affected by the FAFSA issues is the University of Massachusetts. As a public institution, the FAFSA is the only application required to be considered for federal need-based grants, work study, and loans.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said emails from the admissions office this week note that the university is “continuously monitoring updates from the Department of Education and will inform our students of changes to any UMass deadlines.”

That email encourages students to continue trying to file by the UMass priority filing date of March 1. “If you are experiencing challenges submitting your FAFSA, please reply to this email so that we may assist you,” the correspondence states. It also says that if students fail to get the FAFSA done, it will not affect funding, and that state and scholarship agencies have varying deadlines that they are encouraged to meet.

Amherst College has been able to modify its requirements, pushing the deadline for submission of a FAFSA for all first-time enrolling students until July 1. An advisory to this effect is on the college’s website:

“While many students and families have been able to successfully complete the 2024-2025 FAFSA, others have not, due to known FAFSA completion challenges. Out of awareness and concern for these students and families, Amherst College is delaying our submission requirement for the FAFSA to July 1 for all first time enrolling students.”

Amherst College put together a website to update students on the FAFSA submission, recommending that current aid applicants prioritize completing all other aid documents and that, while completing and submitting FASA if possible, “FAFSA is not required for an accurate aid offer from Amherst College.”

Hidalgo said some colleges have created their own institutional aid application, listing aid award, institutional grants and scholarships, plus any state and federal aid. Hidalgo said many also have a net price calculator. But state schools are reliant on FAFSA, whereas in addition to Smith and Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges also participate in CSS Profile.

FAFSA is required for all U.S. citizens and permanent resident students who accept a financial aid offer so that the money can be disbursed.

Amherst College’s Dean of Financial Aid Gail Holt brings expertise from chairing the FAFSA Simplification Implementation Working Group, an organization made up of 13 financial aid administrators from across the country to prepare for the moment. Part of that work also included a change in which the federal income tax return to use was filed two years before the current academic years.

For this reason, McGann said, he anticipates students who would enroll in the fall of 2025 will be able to file their forms this coming October.

“Going forward, this will be something that makes college-going easier and better for families across the country,” McGann said. “It will be less complex, less cumbersome for millions of families.”

Hidalgo, too, envisions improvement. “I’m hoping it’s a one-year thing and next year it will be back to normal,” Hidalgo said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.