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February CPR Newsletter:
The College Financial Aid Mess

My Friend,

All the other issues I reported on last month pale in comparison to what’s going on with financial aid applications this month (and year). I’m at a loss to describe how sorry I am. What started as good intentions has become another monster of a stressor that deserves top billing in this month’s newsletter. I hope the chronology below, with a few resources thrown in, provides useful information if you have a senior, or you’re just watching this debacle unfold, or you’re learning about it for the first time.

The best of intentions…

  • In 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act mandating that the Department of Education needed to revamp their famously difficult-to-fill-out form that most families must complete to apply for college financial help: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Congress gave the Department of Education a tight deadline to complete this mission, so part of the problem we’re having now started way back then.
  • The goals of revamping the FAFSA form were to streamline it from 100+ questions down to as few as 18 questions, make it easier to fill out, and expand Pell Grant eligibility (free money for lower income applicants). If you want to dive deeper into the feds’ hopes and dreams, see the Department of Education’s explanation of 7 Key Changes Coming To the 2024-25 FAFSA Experience.
  • A new and improved FAFSA was scheduled appear on October 1, 2023, ready for families to fill out.
  • Separately (but also intertwined) in 2023, 360+ colleges vowed to make the financial aid award letters they send along with offers of admission more transparent. I cannot tell you how many people contact me every year for help making heads or tails of those letters that arrive with their college acceptances. It’s hard to decipher what is a scholarship (free money from the college), a grant (free money often but not always from the government), work/study (money in exchange for child labor), and what is the actual number of dollars college will cost the family. Fingers and toes crossed that this year it will be easier for you to read those letters, as promised.

It all started to go awry…

  • Last fall, the announcements began that the annual FAFSA form— available to fill out on October 1 every year for as long as I can remember—would not be available until the “end of the year.” It was a one-time delay in releasing this new and improved form that will be so much better and easier and less time consuming and worth the wait yadayadayada.
  • The form did become available in a “soft launch” at the very end of the year—as in Dec 30, 2023. But it was not easier or less time consuming. Glitches abounded from bumping people off the site after they’d spent hours trying to access it, to blocking the thousands of students whose parents couldn’t provide a social security number (details here), and more. Oops.
  • The Department of Ed took the site down. They put it back up. They realized they’d forgotten to factor inflation into their formula. Down. Up again. They set up a whole webpage of issues with the new form both unresolved and resolved.
  • They said a fix is on the way “sometime in March” for the social security number problem, but that most students have been able to submit the form.
  • Just days ago came another announcement. There’s now a delay for the government to process the forms. Colleges will receive applicants’ federal aid information “sometime in March,” over a month later than usual. Will that happen at the same “sometime in March” when parents without social security numbers can finally submit their FAFSA forms? Who knows?! See Another Devastating FAFSA Delay for a deeper dive into how this is affecting both applicants and colleges’ bottom lines.

So here we are now…

  • Colleges are left scrambling, troubleshooting, and hoping to deliver admission decisions along with financial aid offers as close to “on time” as possible, so students can make informed decisions.
  • Realistically, while colleges wait for information from the Department of Education about students’ financial qualifications, you’ll need to wait until April for college notifications originally slated to arrive in March if your child’s a senior. (Again, I’m so sorry.)
  • Colleges and organizations that serve under-represented students are concerned that FAFSA submissions are way down (from 17.5 million last year to only about 4 million so far this year). They worry the very students financial aid is meant to assist will give up on applying to college altogether.
  • I don’t know if financial aid award letters from those 360+ colleges (that vowed to make them easier to read) will truly be clearer when they do appear in your child’s inbox, but I hope so!
  • I do know that a number of colleges have already extended the date for students to make enrollment decisions, from the usual May 1 “National College Decision Day” to May 15 or June 1. See Colleges Begin Pushing Back Deadlines Amid FAFSA Delays for more on that.

Phew. It’s a lot. I’ll continue to post updates on my Facebook page and in our Chill Parents’ Revolution Facebook Group. You continue to hang in there if you have a high school senior right now or your kid’s in college already awaiting this year’s award. Please update me if you’re in the thick of this mess and have info I might not, or if I can help in any way. It will all shake out eventually, but I know it adds to the jitters of the unknown as students await March (April?) college admission notifications.

If you have a junior or younger and your face looks like Edward Munch’s The Scream painting right now, you can close your mouth and remove your palms from your cheeks. Yes, there will be a snowball effect from this FAFSA storm for college administrations next year, but with any luck at all, these abysmal glitches will be ironed out by October 1 when it’s your turn to fill out the form for the first time. (I regret to report FAFSA submissions are an annual rite of passage, so your first time will not be your last.)

Sanity Saver

I dare you to try not to feel happy, at least for a few minutes, when you listen to this song: I Found Joy In My Life.

As for the affirmative action ban, legacy admission preference, and standardized testing in the news…

Well, standardized testing is getting the most media airtime this month. The College Board is on a PR rampage to advertise the SAT’s switch to 100% digital next month and plugging for testing as the great equalizer (you know how I feel about that if you’ve read College Admissions Cracked). You may have seen that a couple of famous universities have reinstated their standardized test score admission requirement for next year. After writing that last sentence, I’m going to listen to I Found Joy In My Life to calm myself down.



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