FAFSA overhaul giving colleges major headaches

May 10—This year's rocky roll out of the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, has caused delayed decisions by students and families and challenges on the part of colleges trying to assist them.

"It's been a mess. We all know that," said Chris Olsen, Indiana State University provost. The problems are nationwide, he said.

ISU mailed financial aid notifications (FANS) to its first groups of admitted incoming freshmen last week, he said.

"Last year, we sent out FANS the second or third week of February," Olsen said. "That's how far behind we are, along with pretty much everyone." It's been a problem nationwide for colleges and universities.

According to Associated Press, the FAFSA went through a massive federal overhaul that was supposed to make it simpler and shorter.

But "a series of blunders by the Education Department made it harder than ever, delaying college decisions by months and raising fears that hundreds of thousands of students will forgo college entirely," AP recently reported.

At ISU, while the university has been begun sending out financial aid notifications, in many cases corrections must be made or questions need to be answered.

A large group of students requires special outreach, said Donna Ring, ISU student financial aid executive director.

"These are students who are not packaged for a variety of reasons and most will need to make a FAFSA correction or submit documentation. We need to walk them through the process as this can be confusing," she said.

Also, there were several hundred students with FAFSAs that had to be reprocessed by the U.S. Department of Education.

"We decided to wait for the good records before packaging and mailing their FANs because we want students to receive accurate aid offers. This should be done by the end of the week," she said.

Colleges and universities where a higher percentage of students require need-based aid will be more greatly impacted by the FAFSA delay, and that includes ISU, Olsen said.

"We traditionally have about 50% of students qualify for Pell grants," Olsen said. "It's going to affect us more."

There could be an impact on fall enrollment, he said, but at this time, there's no way to tell.

"We're in such uncharted territory. We're almost three months behind" in getting information out to students about financial aid, Olsen said.

Students and families have had to wait to make a decision because they need to know how much it will cost, he said.

The FAFSA delays makes things hard for the university in terms of planning, but even more important, it makes it difficult for families and students to make decisions.

"The biggest fear is that people will decide to wait a year ... once you don't go a year, it's always harder to go back," Olsen said.


Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology also has been impacted, said Tom Bear, vice president for enrollment management.

"In a normal year, we would share our financial aid notifications with admitted students beginning in the month of January. This year, we had to wait until the first weeks of April before sending notifications," he said.

This significantly shortened the time that families had to select Rose-Hulman or another institution.

Also, staff have invested significant time processing FAFSA corrections and providing students with revised notifications.

Due to these delays, Rose-Hulman has allowed students to extend their decision date and several accepted our offer.

Another change has impacted the college as well.

"We have experienced a change from an estimated financial contribution (EFC) to a student aid index (SAI) increase both the number of students with financial need and the amount in which they are eligible to receive from the institution," Bear said.

Ivy Tech Terre Haute

At Ivy Tech, the FAFSA delay "has definitely not been anything like I have seen before," said Julie Wonderlin, Ivy Tech Terre Haute director of financial aid.

Everything has been delayed. In the 25 years she's worked in financial aid, "I've never felt less helpful," she said.

Financial aid couldn't be processed until April and most schools are still working on getting out award notifications, she said.

"It's definitely been a stressful year," she said. "It's a hard year for (high school) seniors."

It could have an impact on enrollment, but because of the community college's lower costs compared to four-year institutions, there may not be as much of an impact, she said.

Last week, she said Ivy Tech is hoping to send out initial award notices by this week or next week.

"I finally feel like we are moving forward at a much better pace than what we have since October," she said. "We will be working as hard as we can" to encourage students to complete the FAFSA and to help with corrections.

"We're here to help in any way we can," Wonderlin said.

But as of last week, the college hasn't been able to make corrections on their end. "Students can do it from their side ... We need to be in person with that student or do a Zoom call" so students could show Ivy Tech staff where the problems were and Ivy Tech staff could help them navigate it, Wonderlin said.

The Woods

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College hasn't been spared the impact of the delayed FAFSA rollout.

"It's very disappointing that the Department of Education has put students and colleges in this situation, but we will get through this," said Darla Hopper, interim vice president for enrollment management. "We're all in it together. It's not just one school being affected. We're all pulling together to help each other out."

As of last week, the college was about 98% done with financial aid packages for those students with a FAFSA on file.

But the college also has seen a decrease in filing of FAFSA.

In past years, colleges could help with the correction process as soon as they imported the FAFSAs. But as of last week, DOE had not yet enabled schools to do so, which has been a source of frustration for students, Hopper said.

Officials remain optimistic that enrollment will at least hold steady with last year, and the college has had record enrollments the past two years, said BJ Riley, director of marketing.

Applications are up about 15%, he said. "We believe we will be at least at the point where we were last year with new students."

Hopper noted that the college no longer has priority dates for enrollment. "It's a rolling enrollment date now," she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com. Follow Sue on X at @TribStarSue.