Opinion: College applicants and the current national FAFSA delay: Don’t lose hope

In this file photo, Lynda McGee, right, a college counselor, helps students fill out the FASFA at Downtown Magnets High School.

In this file photo, Lynda McGee, right, a college counselor, helps students fill out the FASFA at Downtown Magnets High School. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / TNS


Published: 02-18-2024 8:00 AM

Kenneth Ferreira is a vice president and director of Student Financial Services at Franklin Pierce University and president-elect of the Eastern Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The FAFSA Simplification Act, passed in December 2020, was intended to both ease the process for students and families applying for financial assistance in order to attend college, as well as expand access to federal sources of college financial assistance. Seems easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the rollout of the 2024 - 2025 process has experienced pain points that are deeply concerning, as the United States Department of Education announced that colleges and universities would not receive student financial aid information until mid-March, and a handful of institutions across the country are pushing back their deadlines for accepted students to commit, as a result.

While higher-ed professionals are watching closely and many college applicants who will be filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are trying to figure it all out, there is real concern that the dream of a college education may now feel even more out of reach by the ongoing delays. My message is to not lose hope.

What happened? First, the availability of the 2024 - 2025 FAFSAwas pushed from a normal open date of Oct. 1 to a “soft launch” that took place on Dec. 31, 2023. Results of the FAFSA were promised to colleges and universities by Jan. 31, 2024, so that financial aid offices from all over the country could award students financial assistance. Then, on Jan. 30, 2024, the Department of Education moved the goal post of processed FAFSAs being received by schools to the “first half of March.”

In my career of more than 25 years as a financial aid administrator, the past 19 years at Franklin Pierce University, I have helped thousands of students navigate the college financing process. These delays being faced by applicants coast-to-coast are unprecedented, but I am confident that the situation will be resolved.

Every day I hear from parents and students who are expressing difficulty with an already cumbersome process, and I offer reassurance that while deadlines keep changing, colleges and universities are poised to help. The last thing anybody wants including colleagues at the U.S. Department of Education is for a college student to delay or give up on their college dreams because the financial aid process has been made more complex this year.

What can families do? If you have not done so already, file your 2024 - 2025 FAFSA now. Schools will be receiving an avalanche of data in March, and you want your FAFSA to be processed as quickly as possible. Visit the college campuses you are considering. Attend an overnight experience or an open house event. Meet with staff, including the financial aid staff, so that your questions are answered. Also:

■Apply for scholarships through website searches and scholarship resources available at your high school guidance office —remember: a legitimate scholarship application should never charge a student a fee to apply.

■Decide what your plan will be to cover the cost of college that financial aid doesn’t cover. Will you need a monthly payment plan? Will you need a student loan or a parent loan beyond the federal loan you qualify for as part of your financial aid offer? That “kitchen table talk” can happen now while you wait for the FAFSA to be processed.

■Each college and university the student is applying to is required to have a Net Price Calculator. Visit the websites of the schools you’re looking at and use the Net Price Calculator as a tool to estimate your financial aid eligibility.

Finally, talk to a financial aid counselor. The time between now and the first half of March can be spent asking your current questions or asking a financial aid counselor to walk you through the college financing process.

While processing time will be compressed this year and deadlines moving, patience, collaboration, and a can-do mindset are what will ease this cumbersome process. I am confident that we can look forward to a 2025 - 2026 financial aid cycle that is much smoother, once these current unforeseen circumstances are resolved.