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Lawmakers express dismay about FAFSA form troubles

House members eye chaos caused by new financial aid form

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona faced scrutiny Wednesday from lawmakers during on the new federal student aid form during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies hearing.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona faced scrutiny Wednesday from lawmakers during on the new federal student aid form during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The chaos caused by the rollout of a new college financial aid form came under congressional scrutiny Wednesday, when a House subcommittee held a hearing on changes that have left millions of students in limbo. 

In order to receive federal financial aid, work study and loans, students and prospective students must complete the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The Department of Education this year rolled out a new form designed to streamline the process and make it easier to apply. But the process has been riddled with errors and delays, drawing bipartisan condemnation.

“Students needed their financial aid information months ago to make college decisions, yet many still don’t have that information today,’’ said Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., the ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. “These setbacks put decades of progress in jeopardy, slamming the brakes on efforts to widen access to higher education and financial stability for students of color, first-generation students, and those from low-income backgrounds.”

Subcommittee Chairman Burgess Owens, R-Utah, placed the blame for the “delays and dysfunction” on the Department of Education, saying its “botched implementation threatens to damage students, families, and institutions.”

The launch has been bedeviled with technological glitches, processing delays and long waits on hold when parents and students call for help. Students whose parents lack a Social Security number have been especially hard hit, as the system was initially unable to process their forms.

Most high school seniors have yet to receive an aid offer, said Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit advocacy group. “They are being asked to commit by May 1,’’ she said. “Our greatest fear is they will decide they can’t.”

High school seniors graduating in 2024 have submitted 30 percent fewer FAFSA forms than those who graduated in 2023, Cook said.

 “We feel like we’re flying blind without a clear path,’’ said Rachelle Feldman, the vice provost of enrollment at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She said the school has yet to release a single official aid offer, despite having released admissions decisions.

“More than once the department’s issued guidance only to have it reversed or revised within days,’’ Feldman said. “We’ve done, undone and redone work more times this year than I can count. Our financial aid professionals … feel like the rug keeps getting yanked out from under them and if they feel like that, imagine how our first-generation families and students feel.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told a House Appropriations subcommittee at a separate hearing that resolving the system’s problems is a priority.

“I understand the challenges our students, our families … our universities, financial aid administrators are facing,” he said at the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “There’s nothing more important to the Department of Education. We’re working on this around the clock because we want to make sure our students have the information they need to make informed decisions.”

Cardona said the new system will open up financial aid opportunities to more students once the issues are resolved. “I do empathize with the challenges and frustrations that folks are feeling,” he said.

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