ED Urges Caution in Setting Priority Deadlines

By Joan Berkes, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

In a letter to college presidents dated August 8, 2016, Department of Education (ED) Under Secretary Ted Mitchell asks colleges to provide, under the new “Early FAFSA” available October 1, 2017-18 financial aid packages as early as possible to give students critical financial aid information before choosing a college. At the same time, the letter asks schools not to move any priority financial aid deadlines earlier than their deadlines for recent years, even though the FAFSA will be available three months earlier than in prior years.

The letter urges schools to “strongly consider not having their financial aid deadlines earlier than their state student aid deadlines and later if possible.”

“The goal of early FAFSA,” Mitchell states, “is to expand college opportunity by ensuring that students and families have more time to consider their college options with an understanding of the financial resources available to help them pay for college.” If early award packages are not possible because final budget and funding allocations have not yet been received, the letter asks schools to consider providing students with estimated financial aid packages.

The letter acknowledges that “it may be a challenge to balance the twin objectives of providing award packages earlier and not setting earlier priority deadlines that some colleges use to prompt students to apply for state and institutional aid.” The letter warns that “Early priority aid deadlines most negatively impact students from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students who often have the least amount of information and support through the college financial aid and admissions application processes.”

Mitchell also suggests that schools “carefully analyze historical trends, making adjustments for anticipated demographic and timing changes, especially the change to the early FAFSA, and adjusting award strategies so that those students with the most need have full access to funds, regardless of when they apply. Actions such as these help to realize the full benefits of early FAFSA, while ensuring that low-income and first-generation are not unintentionally negatively impacted by the aid process.”

The letter does not address the inherent conflict that can arise between advising schools to provide students “with financial aid packages as early as possible” but also telling them to “not to move any priority financial aid deadlines earlier than your deadlines for recent years.” For many schools, particularly those with institutional aid, providing a package without moving a priority deadline is not functionally possible, with the alternative being first-come, first-serve packaging--a detrimental option for low-income students. If having a priority deadline means the school does the bulk of its packaging after the deadline, a later deadline precludes early award packages.

In addition, if the school, in trying to meet both ED suggestions of early award notification and later deadlines, runs out of aid before getting to all students who applied by the deadline, how does the school explain to those students who missed out that the deadline was not, in fact, realistic?

The NASFAA Board of Directors and staff have been in contact with officials at ED to explain the delicate balance schools are trying to reach in getting financial aid awards out earlier, while also taking into consideration late filers. NASFAA continues to encourage institutions to be mindful of the impact that deadline changes can have on disadvantaged students, and whenever possible, to budget accordingly so that late filers still have access to financial aid to the fullest extent possible.

This letter follows up a March letter also from Mitchell requesting schools to consider providing earlier award notifications. Congress has also been active in the early awards vs. early deadlines balancing act: in July, 26 Democratic members from the House and Senate sent a letter to the presidential higher education associations about their concerns for low-income students missing out on earlier-awarded aid.


Publication Date: 8/9/2016

Ann B | 8/10/2016 3:24:04 PM

The October 1 FAFSA filing date was a poorly thought out move by our legislators indeed. I agree with George and Theodore 100%. Do the students and their families really understand this? Are they really ready to apply for aid for the following year when they literally just began the current academic year? Are families in a different financial position in November and December than they are in March or April that would influence a decision?

George J | 8/9/2016 10:27:25 AM

Depending on how we react, perhaps we can turn this into a teachable moment for our legislators who somehow don't seem to understand how needy the student populations are at a lot of our schools, and how limited financial resources for them are.

Theodore M | 8/9/2016 9:14:37 AM

Thank you for trying to explain the situation. To be honest, if we are not making students commit until May 1, exactly how long does it take to think about it? These deadlines are being used like chess pieces in some big game without knowing what it will mean to students. I personally will be surprised if the first year produces an avalanche of ISIRS in early October.

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