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This year, colleges must choose between fast financial aid offers, or accurate ones

Annelise Capossela for NPR

Countless prospective college students are eager to commit to colleges, acceptances in hand, but are stuck waiting for one last piece of the puzzle: their college financial aid package. Those offers are coming later than normal this year, due to the troubled launch of the U.S. Education Department's new federal student aid form, or FAFSA.

Some institutions are doing anything they can to get those offers out as soon as possible – even if it means they aren't a guarantee. For example, Cal Poly Pomona has decided to send "provisional" aid offers for now, with final offers coming by the time students officially start classes.

"The goal is to have these done, you know, for sure before school starts," says Jeanette Phillips, head of financial aid there. Phillips says other financial aid administrators in the California State University system, the largest in the country, have decided to do the same thing.

With students and families eagerly awaiting the results of their FAFSA applications, college financial aid offices are in a tough position: They need to send aid offers out as soon as possible to give students time to weigh their options, but they also don't yet trust the FAFSA data the Education Department is sending them.

That's because the data has been "riddled with errors or incompletions," says Justin Draeger, the president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

To navigate this dilemma, Draeger says, "different schools are trying different tactics."

"Some schools are going to send out provisional or estimated aid offers as soon as they can. Other schools aren't able to sort through the data. They feel like they are stuck until they get more information."

At Oregon State University, the financial aid office is taking its time. Keith Raab, the head of financial aid at OSU, tells NPR they've had the conversation about provisional offers, but ultimately decided against it.

"Our experience has been that those mostly add to confusion instead of making things more clear," he says. "Students and families don't understand why things change and we don't want to add to their stress."

Instead, they're trying to be transparent about timelines, and sending frequent updates to students and parents who have already submitted their forms.

Towson University, outside Baltimore, is taking a similar approach. Boyd Bradshaw, who runs the admissions and financial aid offices there, says he wants families to know the school will be flexible.

"We're going to work individually with each student to make sure that their financial aid package doesn't deter their attendance," he says.

Compounding FAFSA delays have forced colleges to act

The revamped FAFSA got off to a slow start last year, debuting three months late, and pushing back the timeline for colleges to start processing student financial aid offers. Those offers were further delayed while the department worked to fix a FAFSA math errorthat failed to take inflation into account. The department said it would start sending financial aid data to schools in the first half of March, just weeks before the traditional college commitment deadline of May 1.

Schools did start to receive student data in March, but in many cases, it was only by the handful: single-digit numbers of student files to start, then a few hundred, then a few thousand. The department finally cleared the backlog of applications last Friday, but shortly after, it announced that about 20% of the data was impacted by other errors.

The department said it "recognizes how important it is that schools and states have the information they need to extend financial aid offers and that families have the information they need to make critical education decisions."

In an email to NPR, a department spokesperson said they are working to make it easier for students to apply for and receive financial aid.

The compounding delays have pushed many schools – including George Mason University in Northern Virginia and Colorado State University – to shift their commitment deadlines to mid-May or June.

And while the department is working to fix many of the errors, one is still causing difficulty for some mixed-status families, or families where the students are citizens, but the parents or guardians are not. For a while it wasn't possible for parents without a social security number, which many non-citizens don't have, to fill out the new form. In mid-March the department said they had fixed the problem, but was aware of continued difficulties for some students.

Some students are still locked out

Georgina García Mejía, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., has been trying to submit her FAFSA since the beginning of February.

"I try like, four times a week," she says. She submits the form over and over hoping for a different response. García Mejía has citizenship, but her mom does not, so she falls into that bucket of students from mixed-status families who are still locked out.

García Mejía hopes to go to Towson University, where she's already been accepted, to stay close to her family and work toward a nursing degree. Towson's commitment deadline is May 15.

"I'm scared that the deadline is coming really soon," she says. "And I won't be able to get the help that I want."

The only guidance her counselors can give her is to call the FAFSA helpline and see if someone picks up. She says she hasn't been calling every day, but definitely most days. "I'm never able to get to someone."

Boyd Bradshaw, at Towson, says he's been hearing from a lot of mixed-status students like García Mejía.

"We've heard the same story," he says. "And there's no real answer to why it works for some and not for others."

His advice for mixed-status applicants is to try the FAFSA helpline first, and if that doesn't work, reach out to Towson's financial aid office.

"We're not going to shut our doors, particularly with students who are having these challenges."

His office is hoping to get aid offers out to students by the end of April. Towson has already extended its commitment deadline once, and Bradshaw says he's not opposed to extending it again, if the errors continue.

"What I can tell families: 110% we will be flexible after May 15," he says.

This year, everyone is flexible, whether they want to be or not.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
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