Think Out Loud

How federal financial aid update is impacting Oregon students and school officials

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 15, 2024 8:12 p.m. Updated: Feb. 16, 2024 9:59 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 16

College-bound students in Oregon and around the nation would typically be receiving their financial aid packages from colleges and universities right about now to help them decide where to enroll in the fall. But many students may now have to wait until April because of the U.S. Department of Education’s delay in sharing financial aid information to colleges and universities.

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The delay adds to the troubled rollout of the new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid which the education department recently overhauled to make it easier for families and students to apply for federal grants and loans. But the FAFSA update failed to adjust for inflation when calculating financial aid eligibility — a mistake education officials are scrambling to fix, and which has resulted in nearly $2 billion in additional federal aid becoming available to applicants. The many delays and technical problems have added to an already stressful experience. OPB higher education reporter Tiffany Camhi joins us to share how the new FAFSA application has been impacting Oregon high school students and college and university administrators in the state.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. On December 31st, the US Department of Education released a new version of the free application for the Free Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. It is how around 17 million college-bound students apply for financial aid. But the update, which was supposed to make life easier for students and their families, has done just the opposite. It’s been plagued with delays and technical problems that are having ripple effects for colleges, universities and state governments. Tiffany Camhi is OPB’s higher education reporter. She joins us now with more details. Good to have you here.

Tiffany Camhi: Hi, Dave. Thanks for having me.

Miller: So I gave the one sentence version in my intro, but can you give us a better understanding of what FAFSA is and how central it’s been to people in this country applying for college and financial aid?

Camhi: Yeah. So like you said, it’s an acronym that stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s a form provided by the U.S. Department of Education for students looking to get federal financial aid to help pay for their college. So if you went to any kind of post secondary schooling, depending on how long ago it was, you might remember filling out this form and it’s basically a series of questions about a student’s financial situation. And the Education Department uses the answers to determine how much financial aid a person is eligible for.

There are several different types of federal financial aid. There’s work study funds, there’s federal loans which typically have lower interest rates than private loans. And then the big one is Pell Grants and that’s basically free money from the federal government to go to school that students do not have to pay back. Federal aid is the largest form of financial aid for post secondary students in the US. And with a lot of schools raising tuition over the past few years and the combined rising cost of living, the FAFSA has a really, really big impact on making school more affordable for students and their families.

Miller: What do college administrators or state agencies do with FAFSA?

Camhi: So just to back up a little bit, the FAFSA basically creates a student needs for aid profile for each student that applies. And this profile takes into account things like yearly income and assets of students and their parents. If the student is a dependent and based off of this need, the Department of Education begins awarding grants and loans. Now, around the same time that this is happening, the Education Department is also sending the student aid profile to schools and state agencies. And then these groups use the same information to determine how much of their own grants and scholarships to award students. So schools and state agencies are really dependent on the FAFSA.

Miller: What was wrong with the old system? Why did the Department of Education change it?

Camhi: Well, a lot of people who I talked to who work in student financial aid say that an update to the FAFSA was long overdue, it was sorely needed. They said the old application had too many questions, it was complicated. It took too long to fill out, some of the questions that were confusing and it was just overall a cumbersome process. So in 2020, the FAFSA Simplification Act was passed and it was supposed to address some of these problems and the goal of that law was to simplify the form as the name suggests and also expand access to federal Pell grants to students. The new FAFSA has less than 40 questions for most people. According to the education department, it’s supposed to take less than an hour to fill out.

Miller: OK, let’s turn to that because that’s not the way it’s worked out. The idea was to streamline the system. We’re talking about it because that hasn’t happened. Can you just give us a sense for the delays and the technical problems?

Camhi: So many. There’s been a lot of hiccups with the rollout of the new FAFSA and it’s mostly been plagued by delays in technical problems, like you said. So in a normal year, students can start filling out the FAFSA as early as October for the following school year. This year, the application has only been available for a month and a half and the new FAFA was federally mandated to launch before the end of the year and it did, but just barely. The application came online December 31st and that first week it was online, the application was only available for a few hours at a time. And from what I’ve heard from students, the website kept on crashing.

A student I talked to was Tracy Zhen. She’s a senior at Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland. She was one of the thousands of people who tried to fill out the new FAFSA the first week it was available here. Here she is.

Tracy Zhen [recording]: “I was ready and I was prepared. You know, I had my sister there with me as well and like I had all the documents from my parents and everything, but it kept on glitching and you would press on start a new form, but then it wouldn’t let you click it. But the website was open. So it was kind of confusing and it would turn on and off.”

Camhi: So as you can hear, the new simplified FAFSA was not so simple for Tracy. It ended up taking her about three weeks from start to finish, to fill it out. And the Education Department was aware of all these issues. The application is now available 24/7. A lot of those glitches are not there anymore, but there’s been a lot of other delays and problems happening over the past few weeks.

There was a key problem with its financial aid calculation. They did not account for inflation, which as we all know, inflation has skyrocketed since 2020. So that problem made it seem like students and families were basically more well off than they actually were. The Education Department said it’s going to fix it, but because of this fix, other things are going to be delayed. They won’t be able to give those student aid profiles to schools and state agencies until sometime next month, and they were expecting to receive them three weeks ago.

Miller: Who is being most impacted by this right now?

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Camhi: I’ve been talking to financial aid administrators at Oregon’s public, private and community colleges about this, as well as a high school college counselor and they are all worried about the same thing. They’re worried about first generation students and students who come from low income families. I talked to Kathleen Reid. She’s a high school counselor also at Benson and she helps a lot of students fill out the FAFSA and plan for college. Kathleen is really worried that the students that could benefit the most from federal financial aid are the ones that are going to be left out.

Kathleen Reid [recording]: “It’s really going to impact our low income students, our lowest income students, in a big way because they’re the ones who really need to be able to compare their financial aid packages to make a decision. And then for this subset, which are the students whose parents don’t have a social security number, they cannot complete their FAFSA at all. So for them, I’m just worried that some students are just going to throw in the towel and give up because it just feels like another barrier.”

Camhi: And Kathleen brought up another big issue with the new FAFSA and that students with parents who don’t have a social security number, are completely blocked out from applying for the FAFSA right now. They can’t even finish the application. There was a work around for students in that group before but it’s unavailable now. The Education Department is aware that it’s a problem. They say they’re going to fix it but they have so far not said how they will or given a timeline.

Miller: What does this mean for college admissions offices? I mean, how does the regular timeline for financial aid information, acceptance letters [and] decision dates compare to what’s going to happen in the coming months?

Camhi: Everything is pushed back by at least a month for a lot of schools. A lot of schools have and some private scholarships, too, have pushed back their deadlines because they know of this problem with the FAFSA. The usual enrollment or deposit deadline for most schools is May 1st in a normal year. Oregon State University was actually one of the first schools in the nation to announce that it would push back its deadline to June 1st. A lot of other schools in the state have followed suit. And again, the reason they’re doing this is because schools aren’t going to get that student financial aid profile from FAFSA until sometime next month. And they need that information to compile their financial aid packages, and they basically can’t send it out until they get the information from the federal government.

Miller: What did you hear from students about that version of this delay?

Camhi: Yeah. So I’ve been mostly talking to seniors in high school seniors at Benson High for this story. So fortunate for them, they don’t know anything different. They knew they’ve never gone through this before.

Miller: They’ve never gone through this process.

Camhi: They do know that there’s some problems with it, but this is the first time that they’ve had to interface with the FAFSA, but barring that a lot of them are frustrated. The new form was not as simple as it was supposed to be. It’s been really glitchy. Some students have not been able to completely fill it out and the delays just keep on coming from the education department.

Tracy Zhen, the Benson senior we heard from before, is nervous about having enough time to compare all the financial aid packages from the schools she applied to and she applied to 20 schools. So she’s got a lot of comparisons to do.

Zhen [recording]: “If my decision comes out for a school that I want to go to but the financial aid package is not there, I’m worried about what to do from there? You know, like I filled out my FAFSA and obviously submitted the application. But now, what do I do? Like, I’m confused and I think I would be really stuck.”

Camhi: So you can really hear that worry in her voice. Tracy says she comes from a low income family and making a smart financial aid decision is extremely important for her.

Miller: What are local colleges and universities or state authorities doing right now to try to help people?

Camhi: There’s not much that they can do but wait and put pressure on the education department to fix things quicker. They’re doing all that they can. They pushed back deadlines. A lot of schools have pushed back deadlines because they want to give students and families more time to make decisions. Oregon’s Office of Student Access and Completion, which is the state agency that gives out state grants like the Oregon Opportunity Grant, is sending out staff to colleges and high schools to kind of help people with the FAFSA process and guide them through that.

Miller: What advice for prospective or applying students did you hear from school officials?

Camhi: So a lot of them are just asking for patience right now because there’s again, not much that can be done. Debbie O’Dea is the financial aid director at Pacific University in Forest Grove. I talked to her, she is just as frustrated as everyone else. But her advice for students is to keep a line of communication open with the schools that they’re interested in attending.

Debbie O’Dea [recording]: “We might not be able to offer solid answers right now because we don’t have your information yet, but we can at least be talking through some of that with you, brainstorming some of that with them. And we can say, if you are comfortable waiting until this date, we will probably be able to or hopefully be able to give you an answer by then. And it’s going to be a matter of which schools are going to be delaying that decision date and then you’ll know. Do I have some wiggle room to delay my decision with all schools but one?”

Camhi: And the one thing everyone is saying is still apply for the FAFSA even though there’s so many problems with it. This is still the only way to get federal financial aid. So still apply.

Miller: Tiffany, thanks very much.

Camhi: Thank you.

Miller: Tiffany Camhi is OPB’s higher education reporter.

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