New FAFSA delay is a ‘gut punch.’ What can Colorado families do now?

chalkbeat colorado families FASFA
Kalyn Belsha / Chalkbeat
Colorado families and students will have to wait even longer to get information about how much money schools can offer students because of the latest round of FAFSA delays from the federal government.

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By Jason Gonzales, Chalkbeat Colorado

Colorado students who plan to go to college this fall are facing yet another financial aid delay.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced it wouldn’t be able to send Institutional Student Information Records in batches to colleges and universities until “the first half of March,” adding more frustrations to a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid process that started three months behind. The records, which colleges and universities use to calculate aid students can expect to receive from a school, were supposed to be sent by the end of January

For Colorado students and families, the holdup means they won’t get crucial information that helps them decide which school they can afford until weeks before the May 1 acceptance deadline — with national groups calling for schools to push that date back.

Here and nationally, college experts worry these delays will further harm students who need the most financial support to get to college. National Association of Financial Aid Administrators President and CEO Justin Draeger said in a Tuesday statement that schools are scrambling, especially as some families still can’t fill out the new Better FAFSA released late last month.

“These continued delays, communicated at the last minute, threaten to harm the very students and families that federal student aid is intended to help,” he said.

As Colorado families and students are asked to wait even longer for information that helps them make one of the bigger financial decisions in their life, here’s what they should know.

Why the delays?

This year, the federal government rolled out a new platform for families to fill out the FAFSA. The Better FAFSA, as it’s known, however, was released months late — in December instead of October.

For those families who have been able to fill out the form, the new process has been shorter and easier. But technical glitches have marred the experience.

For instance, during the first week, most families had trouble logging in and the form was only available for part of the day. And students whose parents don’t have a Social Security number still haven’t been able to complete the form.

Now, students and families will have to wait even longer for the federal government to transmit information to schools.

Once colleges and universities get that information, they’ll need possibly from two weeks to a month to get financial aid award letters sent, said Marty Somero, University of Northern Colorado office of financial aid director.

This year, students eligible for Pell grants, or free federal money for college, should get more thanks to updated calculations. The changes slow down the process, Somero said. Colleges and universities need to test systems to ensure they’re sending out the correct financial award to students.

That means it could be April or even mid-April before families get all the information they need to choose whether they can afford a college or university.

It’s a tight timeline for schools and families, especially if schools need to ask parents and students for more information or updates. Schools want to try to move fast, Somero said. They also need to get it right.

“We’ve got to do our due diligence and make sure everything is correct as it comes in before we start making a commitment to a family,” Somero said.

What can families and students do while they wait?

Right now, counselors and financial aid administrators are asking for even more patience.

Vinny Caricato, KIPP Colorado Public Schools KIPP Forward director, said this is a “gut punch” for students and families who have already felt anxious and frustrated with the FAFSA this year.

“We’re in this together,” he said.

The good news is that this gives more families a chance to fill out the form, especially those who have had trouble, such as parents who don’t have a Social Security number, said Natasha Garfield, Denver Scholarship Foundation scholarships director.

Counselors also say they’re trying to help students and families so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Caricato said families have plenty of other things on their plate, so financial aid experts want to be as helpful as possible.

While counselors and schools will continue to communicate next steps, Garfield also said families and students should feel empowered to ask questions.

“We want students to ask the questions that they have and not feel like they’re alone or that they’re in a situation that is different from what their peers are experiencing because, unfortunately, everyone is in this position,” Garfield said.

Caricato said he worries about students who are the first to go to college in their family and who are from lower-income backgrounds during this time.

Despite their frustrations, he said he wants students to keep any goals they have to further their education because college has benefits for them and their long-term financial freedom. Families also shouldn’t feel like they need to make a knee-jerk decision. Top options for students should provide financial and academic support so they can eventually earn their degree.

“We really want them to make a good choice, a well-rounded option,” Caricato said. “They have to go to a place that’s providing them the right support.”

Will colleges and universities push back enrollment deadlines?

It’s possible.

On Wednesday, eight national groups that include NASFAA, the national financial aid administrators organization, called on universities and colleges to provide students flexibility in when they have to decide on college, similar to how they pushed back deadlines during the pandemic.

“We all want students and families to have the time they need to consider their financial options before making enrollment decisions.” the organizations said in a statement.

There’s also more than just a decision deadline that might need to shift.

Somero said on-campus foundation scholarships that need student financial information might need to be pushed back. Northern Colorado officials are working with donors to communicate the issues and delays, he said.

And Northern Colorado has pushed back its deadline to submit paperwork to be considered for maximum school aid to June.

Garfield said she’s had conversations with Colorado colleges and universities about whether they will push back deadlines. She said colleges have tried to maintain deadlines, but that could change.

“The colleges really do understand. They want students to enroll,” she said. “So it’s in their interest to partner with students and families to figure all of this out.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at [email protected].