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Feds move to ease FAFSA financial aid chaos, but no quick fix emerges



Under enormous pressure, federal education officials on Tuesday announced a new round of measures aimed at easing the crisis caused by the difficult rollout of the key form used by aspiring students to calculate the most important financial aid linked to their next university acceptances.

The online form, known as the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which was previously available in late October, did not become fully accessible until mid-January. This delay and numerous computer problems led to a sharp drop in the number of submissions, approximately half at the end of January.

The frustrating irony for students is that the new system was supposed to make things easier and faster, but so far it has resulted in the opposite.

The measures announced Tuesday do not really resolve the computer problems encountered by students with the forms. Instead, the Department of Education has reduced — at least temporarily — federal oversight of the financial aid system in order to streamline the process. Fewer students will need to verify their identity or financial information; a smaller number of colleges will undergo program reviews and these reviews may be delayed beyond the current critical period.

Officials said they would still be able to target suspected fraud or partially prevent it because the new form connects directly online to the tax information parents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

“Our top priority is to ensure that students can access the maximum financial aid possible to help them pursue their higher education goals,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Monday during a telephone press briefing. “These measures reflect the many conversations my colleagues and I are having with college and university leaders, financial aid administrators, students and parents, and others who are on the front lines.

Democratic lawmakers, reluctant to criticize the Biden administration in re-election mode, expressed their exasperation in a letter to Cardona’s agency on Monday.

“Any delay in processing financial aid will have a greater impact on students who need it most, including many students of color, students from mixed-status families, students from rural backgrounds, homeless or foster care students, first-generation college students, and students from underserved communities,” wrote the lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif. .).

Particularly harsh criticism came from congressional Republicans, including Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

“The Department of Education has had more than three years to prepare and yet students are still unable to use their completed applications to obtain federal, state, and campus-based financial aid,” Cassidy wrote to Cardona in a letter dated January 12. “This is unacceptable and does not appear to be consistent with industry standards for website development and launch.”

He added: “The botched rollout means students will be forced to make financial aid decisions with less time and less information than in the past. Where to go to college and how to finance it is one of the most important financial decisions a person will make in their lifetime. ED needs to make this decision easier, not harder.

Cassidy and other Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation.

Each year, approximately 17 million students complete the FAFSA as the first step in accessing financial aid. The federal government gives processed applications to colleges, which use them to develop financial aid programs. The Department of Education had predicted that the new FAFSA would allow 610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds to become eligible for a Federal Pell Grant and 1.5 million more to become eligible for up to 7 Pell Grants. $395.

The latest actions follow those announced last week, including appointing support teams to help colleges manage the new process and overwriting data arriving later than usual. The department also pledged $50 million to nonprofits to provide similar assistance to colleges and families.

Department of Education officials said a lack of funding was a major contributor to the problems.

Congress had “set deadlines requiring us to undertake three massive modernization projects within months of each other,” said a senior department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The manager was referring to the complex fall resumption of student loan payments as well as the new FAFSA.

“Congress has not provided the substantial amount of funding increases that we requested to implement these… bipartisan projects, and here we are, well into the fiscal year and we also have no budget to This year. So it’s very, very difficult for us to provide the level of service that we want to provide,” the official said.

Democratic lawmakers also acknowledged in the letter that the Department of Education has had to work with “less funding than anticipated to complete the job properly and on time.”

The latest FAFSA initiatives will not be a panacea.

The department, for example, still has no solution to the apparent system breakdown when a student reports that a parent does not have a Social Security number.

“We meet daily to chart the way forward,” said a senior ministry official. “I have no news to share at the moment. But this is an issue that is very, very important to us and we are working very hard to find a way forward. »

One potential solution is for families in this situation to file the paper version of the FAFSA, bypassing the IT problem.

Authorities also had no ready response to the near-endless waits for help and automated hang-ups on hotlines.

To be able to participate in the briefing, journalists had to agree not to identify senior officials by name. Only Secretary Cardona spoke on the record, but he did not answer questions and left the briefing before the question-and-answer session began.

But Cardona cited the technical challenge that led to “delays in completely overhauling a broken system that is older than me.”

“It’s about delivering on the promise of transformational change,” Cardona said. “This is about overhauling a broken system that was failing too many students and that we have normalized in this country. It’s about ensuring that the doors of higher education open to more students whose lives can be improved, but who have been put off by the cost and complexity of the system.”

By the end of January, about 700,000 seniors nationwide had applied, compared with about 1.5 million applicants at the same time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education.

In California, only 16.1% of seniors had submitted a FAFSA through Feb. 2, a decline of more than 57% from the same date the previous year, according to network data.

These delays prompted the University of California and California State University to announce last week that they would extend the May 1 deadline for freshmen to accept their admissions offers for fall 2024. Both systems have announced extensions until at least May 15. which provides Cal Grants through the California Student Aid Commission, also extended the priority deadline for submitting financial aid applications by one month, to April 2.

Adam Swarth, a Calabasas high school senior, was hoping to finish the college application process early. But instead, FAFSA problems worsened and prolonged a stressful time. He is always worried.

“We don’t understand exactly what the problems are,” he said. “We just know the problems exist. Maybe I won’t be able to go to the university of my choice because the university won’t have the financial package ready for me when I need to make a decision.



Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from www.latimes.com

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