Technical problems with new FAFSA form threatens to delay financial aid

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    The typically stressful admissions process into college is even moreso this year for many students and families, as technical bugs affect the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) this year.

    The new FAFSA, a simplified update for financial aid eligibility for the 2024-25 academic year, was meant to be easier, but multiple reported glitches have left students scrambling for funding. Students, parents, teachers and universities are reporting a string of issues with the new form from its initial rollout in December 2023, its delayed opening, technical issues on the site, difficulty reaching support. The issues, which the Department of Education has been working to address, are still present as Madison high school graduates are preparing to start college.

    In December 2023, the Department of Education launched the new FAFSA form with the intent to streamline processes and find more funding for students. Changes included expanded eligibility for student aid with an estimated 7.3 million from low-income backgrounds now able to receive Pell Grants.

    “The form itself created a lot fewer questions and made it so that students could fill it out very quickly, so that more students, ideally, would fill the form out,” said Carole Trone, executive director of the Fair Opportunity Project, a national federally funded nonprofit that helps students attend and afford college.

    The overall application allows some students to skip as many as 26 questions depending on circumstances, and possibly finish their FAFSA in 10 minutes, according to the Department of Education.

    But issues in the new process cropped up almost immediately.

    Already, the FAFSA form had a delayed start, opening on December 30, far from its usual October 1 date, but was only open for 30 minutes. The following day the application was open for an additional 30 minutes and only two hours on January 1. On January 8, the FAFSA was finally open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    Beyond the delayed start and limited windows of availability, applicants reported a slew of technical issues.

    Reported on the FAFSA site are: submissions, matching names with the university, not being able to find the universities applied to; students’ social security numbers not matching up to their parents; random bits of information dropped on the identity page; authorizing signatures removed; Student Aid Index miscalculations; and an inability to correct issues impeding applications.

    The Department of Education pushed to address the issues with workarounds. Its analysis of the problem found that fewer than 20% of applicants are experiencing issues. However, the students who did encounter issues sat in limbo until April 1 until they were allowed to make corrections — but the issues continued.

    In Madison, teachers from La Follette High School worked with their students to power through the FAFSA despite continued issues.

    “I worry because students have to fill this out every year. Hopefully, they’ll persist this year. But what does that mean about their attitude towards the forum next year,” said Vanessa Hlavacka, a La Follete counselor for multilingual students. “We were promised a better FAFSA, and this has been anything but that.”

    Hlavacka and Annie Hank Braga are both teachers with the AVID/TOPS program, a college ready program for marginalized students in Madison Metro Schools. They say they constantly tried to help students but could only give so much time for each one.

    On their end, they see the same issues others are facing around the country, but also point to specific issues for students with mixed-status backgrounds — students with a social security number whose parents don’t have one.

    The teachers found that being able to call FAFSA support yielded fast resolutions to problems, but only if the calls didn’t drop. Calls dropped frequently and brought to light another issue on FAFSA supports phone lines.

    “I was working with a student, and they just dropped our call. You’re on hold, and then all of a sudden, hear the beep, beep, beep, and they’ve hung up on you,” Hlavacka said.

    Teachers are now turning to a different service to help students with their FAFSA. Trone with the Fair Opportunity Project stepped in.

    “In recent years, [Wisconsin has] hovered around 34th or 35th among the 50 states in completion rates,” Trone said. “The frustrations that they have hit, of course, the word gets out and discourages other students from even trying because they hear about these obstacles.”

    Fair Opportunity Project works with students to help complete FAFSA forms and find funding for college. Now with the delays and difficulties, the Fair Opportunity Project is helping students through the process patiently to get past all hurdles and receive their aid packages.

    Financial Aid offers typically come well before decision deadlines. Around March or April, students receive their offers from schools to help evaluate their decisions based on costs and aid packages received. With the delays and opportunity to fix issues in their applications only coming in April, some students are still waiting for offers.

    UW-Madison extended the commitment deadline two weeks to May 15. But some students are still waiting on aid offers.

    Students are encouraged to reach out to their respective financial aid and admissions offices to work around commitment deadlines.