Cardona Faces Pointed Questions on FAFSA Rollout During House Hearing on ED’s FY 25 Budget Proposal

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

As House lawmakers begin to sort through President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, members used a hearing on Wednesday with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to demand answers on the “disastrous” rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA.

While the appropriations subcommittee touched on the entirety of the department’s budget, members also called on the secretary to address what has gone wrong with the FAFSA form’s rollout. Meanwhile, in a committee room two floors down, a House education subcommittee held a hearing dedicated to investigating the botched rollout, where NASFAA President & CEO Justin Draeger testified.

Rep. Julia Letlow (R-La.), a former higher education administrator, wanted to know when the department knew there would be serious problems with the form’s rollout. She also stressed how important it is for financial aid administrators to receive FAFSA data in a timely and accurate manner due to the pressures of academic calendars.

“My understanding is that it's been an absolute nightmare. I hear from university administrators all the time. This isn't a partisan issue,” Letlow said. “This is something that is affecting higher education as a whole. It's affecting parents, students, and at a time when I hear from my constituents, industry leaders, that we are facing one of the worst workforce shortages in history, that we shouldn't be creating a deterrent for our students to go into higher education.”

Cardona stressed that the department was working “around the clock” to resolve issues, and that ED was doing all it could to provide students with information in a timely way. He also acknowledged that financial aid administrators are facing increasing challenges during the 2024-25 cycle.

Several members, including Letlow and Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), also wanted to know if efforts to carry out student loan debt cancellation were done at the expense of the FAFSA rollout.

Moolenaar expressed concern over resources being misallocated and argued that actions to cancel student loans were fundamentally unfair to students and parents who have repaid their loans.

Later in the hearing, Cardona explained why the department has sought to overhaul the student aid system, specifically the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and recounted a story from a teacher of color whose balance ballooned from $30,000 to $60,000 while they were making payments.

“This teacher benefited from debt relief and is benefitting from the plans that the president announced,” Cardona said. “So for me this is how we also help maintain teachers of color in our profession. We have to make sure we are increasing salaries, creating good working conditions, being intentional about recruiting and creating pathways and apprenticeships.”

The committee also touched on the department’s student aid portfolio.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) questioned Cardona on funding for the Pell Grant program, citing increased pressure on funding due to its loss in purchasing power and more students becoming eligible.

“Recent analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found that without significantly increased funding, smaller awards, tighter eligibility, or some combination of the above, the Pell reserves can be exhausted by 2026. Possibly sooner,” Pocan warned.

Cardona noted that the president’s budget request called for a $750 increase in the maximum federal Pell Grant.

“To me, increases are going to be needed in order to ensure solvency, so that is an ask that we have. I can tell you every year it's more and more important,” Cardona said. “While we're going to work on accountability and improving the return on investment in higher education — because that's part of the broken system — we recognize that without supporting the increase in Pell we're basically just exacerbating the gaps in our country that exist now.”

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chair of the subcommittee, expressed concerns about ED’s priorities, specifically the efforts to carry out student loan debt cancellation and urged the department to dial back its funding request for new programs and instead “focus on the basics.”

He also took issue with FSA’s budget request, arguing that the student loan forgiveness policies are unfair and send a dangerous message for students to borrow more.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) questioned Cardona on whether the department had conducted any studies on the impact forthcoming regulations — being developed through the negotiated rulemaking process — could have on the cost of course materials.

Those regulations were being considered during the program integrity and institutional quality committee’s sessions, which met earlier this year, and touched on the inclusion of books and supplies in tuition and fees charges. Fleischmann specifically wanted to know if ED has, or will, conduct a study on the potential impact of an opt-in requirement on current access programs.

Cardona said he would reach out to his staff and look into that issue.

The budget process was significantly delayed during the previous cycle and now appropriators are against the clock to meet their September 30 spending deadline.

Both chambers of Congress will continue with initial hearings for the various departments. Following those hearings, lawmakers will then begin to develop and release text containing funding levels for each department.


Publication Date: 4/11/2024

Andrew H | 4/11/2024 8:53:10 AM

It is about time he has been asked pointed questions. If we as aid offices ran our offices 1/2 as bad as this roll-out. ED would have already showed up with the chains and locks and closed 99% of institutions.

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