"From a Hardship to a Crisis" - NASFAA Testifies on Current Status of the FAFSA Rollout

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

In stark terms, NASFAA President & CEO Justin Draeger, along with other higher education experts, provided testimony to a House education subcommittee on Wednesday over the flawed rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA, and detailed how Congress should work to rectify the ongoing challenges that have led the community to question the Department of Education’s (ED) credibility. 

In short, "we are in an awful place today," Draeger said in his testimony reflecting the impact of the form's rollout, which has been plagued by delays, glitches, and other errors. 

While Draeger expressed hope that the higher education community can still salvage the year, his testimony, along with those offered by experts in the field, documented ED’s serious missteps in carrying out FAFSA simplification, highlighted what challenges still lie ahead, and provided congressional lawmakers with suggestions for ensuring more accountability from department leaders.

In order to provide more context into the current status of the FAFSA rollout, Draeger’s full written testimony included a timeline of where the financial aid community stands with the new FAFSA, such as recently discovered IRS income data errors, more delays on when institutions will receive reprocessed FAFSA applicant records, and overall, a lack of clear communication from the department. 

But Draeger said specifically on Wednesday that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for financial aid professionals came on January 30 — “a day that will live in the collective trauma” of financial aid professionals — when ED announced that institutions would not begin receiving Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) until the first half of March.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the data being provided to schools has contained a litany of documented errors, leading many aid professionals to question their ability to accurately calculate aid offers. Draeger said in his opening remarks that ED estimates that 20% of the files that schools have are riddled with errors attributable to ED or the IRS, and another 20% of FAFSAs, on average, are in a rejected status, meaning they don't have the numbers that financial aid offices need to actually calculate any awards. That means 40% of the FAFSA records that schools have are not usable to calculate financial aid offers for students, he added. 

While Draeger noted that the department has been more consistent with its messaging as of late, he still expressed dismay over ED’s initial FAFSA rollout notices that did little to accurately portray the ongoing issues with the form.

Draeger pointed to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's letter to college presidents, chancellors, and financial aid directors, delivered on Tuesday night, with updates on the FAFSA, and steps the department is taking to implement the FAFSA.

“Again, we recognize the hardship the delays have caused. We see your tremendous efforts, and we appreciate your patience,” Cardona wrote in the letter, delivered shortly before Wednesday’s hearing. “We want to help every student and every college that requests it — and we’ll continue to do so.”

Joining Draeger in testifying was NASFAA member, Rachelle Feldman, vice provost of enrollment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who serves as a member of NASFAA’S FAFSA Simplification Implementation Working Group. Feldman highlighted how the financial aid community feels like the “rug got yanked out from under them” due to all the issues stemming from the 2024-25 FAFSA rollout. 

“We cannot leave behind talented minds simply because they rely on financial aid to go to college,” Feldman said in her opening remarks. “We in the field are exhausted. … And we're already worrying about next year. Will there be more delays? Will we leave more young people behind? Will I be able to enroll the students that are so key to my mission? We are facing a crisis of enrollment and of trust.”

As the hearing moved toward questioning of the witnesses — who also included Mark Kantrowitz, president of Cerebly, Inc., and Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) — Owens asked Draeger why ED continues to “downplay” the problems of the FAFSA even though advocates and experts were sounding the alarm on those issues. 

Draeger said he didn’t know why ED could not be more forthcoming of the issues and delays happening with the FAFSA, but encouraged the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to question ED directly to better understand so the department doesn't repeat these mistakes in the future.

“I can tell you some of the ramifications though, which is a loss of confidence by institutional financial aid offices,” Draeger said. “They don't necessarily trust that the data they have is completely accurate so that there won't be more data issues in the future. We just did a poll over the last two days and we have a good number of institutions who are unsure whether they will be able to go out and send aid offers before May 1.”

Other lawmakers had questions for the witnesses on accountability for ED and the crisis of credibility the department is facing from  students, families, and the higher education community. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.) asked Draeger if he feels like ED has taken responsibility for the issues and delays. 

Draeger noted that while ED has acknowledged some challenges, he had yet to hear the department apologize for its missteps. He also noted that the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) is one of only three performance-based organizations within the federal government, giving FSA a special purpose and additional flexibilities not available to other agencies, and noted Congress should bear that in mind when assigning blame. He also offered to share NASFAA’s previous work on FSA as a PBO.

Grothman also asked Feldman how ED could restore trust with institutions and financial aid offices. Feldman said the department needs to be direct and honest with institutions, including what isn’t working with the FAFSA, how next year’s FAFSA cycle may be impacted, and how institutions and the department can work together.

Some lawmakers also questioned how the delays and issues with the 2024-25 FAFSA will impact the upcoming year. 

Rep. Brandon Williams (R-Texas) asked the witnesses to rate their confidence in the department for next year’s FAFSA cycle. Kantrowitz and Cook both said they have medium confidence. Both Draeger and Feldman said they have low confidence in the department. 

Kantrowitz noted that normally ED publishes a draft of the paper FAFSA in February before the typical October 1 launch date. Considering there are six months until October 1, and there needs to be inflationary adjustments to the Student Aid Index (SAI), Kantrowitz said he has his doubts that the 2025-26 FAFSA will not be delayed. 

“ED could still get it done by October 1,” Kantrowitz said. “But I've seen no signs that they're working on it, probably because they're still working on getting this year’s 2024-25 FAFSA down. So I lack confidence that they're not going to have to delay the October 1 date for the 2025-26 FAFSA.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, asked Feldman if she believes the 2025-26 FAFSA cycle will be smoother. 

“I hope it will be a lot smoother, but it's hard to know,” Feldman said. “I don't anticipate right now that it feels likely we'll be ready in October — the usual date.”

The conversation about accountability and credibility led some lawmakers to question whether ED did not make the rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA a top priority, which could have led to many of these issues and delays. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) asked if there was any connection with this week’s student loan debt relief announcement and the rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA.  

“The primary purpose of Federal Student Aid is the student financial aid and the FAFSA,” Kantrowitz said. “Those are the bread and butter issues. Where they have been focusing on trying to bypass the Supreme Court ruling through the regulatory process — and I don't know how many of the staff overlap — but it certainly means that they can’t have all hands on deck focusing on the FAFSA when some of them are focused on other aspects of the Federal Student Aid responsibility.”

Another key topic discussed at the hearing was how these delays, issues, and glitches impact students and their families — particularly those who are first-generation college students and/or come from low-income families. 

Cook’s organization, NCAN, tracks FAFSA submission rates for high school seniors and compares those rates year-over-year. Just this week, NCAN released data that only about 27% of the class of 2024 has completed a FAFSA compared to 45.5% of the class of 2023. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Cook said that the decrease in FAFSA submissions is exacerbated among low-income students and families, since many don’t know the federal government provides Pell Grants and subsidized student loans. Additionally, many under-resourced high schools don’t have many counselors available to help students with the FAFSA, Cook noted.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee, asked Cook what needs to be done to help students continue to their postsecondary education. 

“The first thing we need to do is get the system back on track and get aid offers flowing to students, so they have the information to make the decision,” Cook said. “The second is the village of people — the school counselors, the access advisors, financial aid personnel, admission personnel — who continue to message to students that they belong and that we can help them make this happen.” 

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, gave closing remarks on the hearing, noting that as many high school students approach graduation, ED must act urgently to fix issues with the FAFSA. 

“Today's testimony underscores the critical need for swift action and accountability regarding FAFSA accessibility, but we also need to get the program on track,” Scott said. “FAFSA simplification was supposed to streamline the process and expand eligibility. This year setbacks continue to jeopardize opportunities for countless students.”

Draeger, along with NASFAA’s Karen McCarthy and Rachel Rotunda, will be discussing this congressional hearing on the “Off The Cuff” podcast this week, along with other FAFSA updates.

Stay tuned to Today’s News and NASFAA’s FAFSA Launch web page for the most up-to-date information on the 2024-25 FAFSA rollout.

 

Publication Date: 4/11/2024


Korinne P | 4/12/2024 1:15:16 PM

I typically approach NASFAA's positions with skepticism, as I perceive their stance to attempt often to balance the middle ground excessively, which can appear self-serving. However, I was impressed and encouraged by Justin's testimony. It is important to maintain a constructive relationship with the Department of Education, yet it is also crucial to acknowledge that we did not create the current challenges and cannot resolve them independently. Pretending that these issues do not adversely affect stakeholders, especially students, is counterproductive. I commend NASFAA for their forthrightness in this instance.

Korinne P | 4/12/2024 1:15:16 PM

I typically approach NASFAA's positions with skepticism, as I perceive their stance to attempt often to balance the middle ground excessively, which can appear self-serving. However, I was impressed and encouraged by Justin's testimony. It is important to maintain a constructive relationship with the Department of Education, yet it is also crucial to acknowledge that we did not create the current challenges and cannot resolve them independently. Pretending that these issues do not adversely affect stakeholders, especially students, is counterproductive. I commend NASFAA for their forthrightness in this instance.

Anthony S | 4/11/2024 12:56:55 PM

The DoE really messed up. There should have been beta testing before this went live.

Peter G | 4/11/2024 11:58:24 AM

I think "salvaged for whom" is the question, not "salvaged yes/no." For the majority of students and schools it probably is still salvageable. Higher education as a sector will certainly survive.

There are students who can hang on long enough for their aid offers to sort. Yet there are students who feel burned where outreach isn't going to bring them back, at least right away, or students whose issues aren't resolved and may not be resolvable in time for fall (much less summer).

There are also institutions who will push through with fairly minor impacts. But I suspect a lot of institutions who are already struggling with enrollment and budget cuts are going to see the most melt - the word "crisis" may be more on the nose for some than "salvageable."

Laura L | 4/11/2024 10:27:22 AM

I was a little frustrated with the repeated suggestions of outreach programs to get specific groups of students motivated to complete the FAFSA. This type of suggestion doesn't make a difference if the FAFSA has errors or the ISIR can't be used. Big thanks to Justin who not only relayed the seriousness of the problem, but pushed for a solution to fix it fast so this year can be salvaged.

Amanda B | 4/11/2024 8:31:36 AM

Yesterday's hearing was hard to watch because I still think there are some folks who don't get the seriousness of what's happened in our industry and the impact it has had, is having and will continue to have. But I will say that I am so proud to be a part of this community and to have advocates like Justin, Rachelle, and Kim working so tirelessly for us and our students!

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