FAFSA delays cause problems for students across the region

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 19, 2024

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FAFSA delays are causing headaches for both students and parents across the region. Normally, incoming college freshmen get financial aid packages by late April or early May. That helps them decide between multiple options, weighing which offer is better. This year, however, problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program have created delays and held up that plan. 

“Institutions are facing a much shorter window of time to process FAFSA applications due to the delay taken in March, which in turn gives the students an even shorter turnaround time,” said Buckingham County High College Advisor Shawn Barbachano, who is part of the Virginia College Advising Corps.

Cumberland High College Adviser Abbey Pence said that many of her students will graduate from high school before they receive their financial aid packages for college. 

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“It’s truly crunch time like never before and stress levels are at an all time high,” Pence said. “After graduation, my students inevitably have less access to me, at least in person, as a resource, so that makes this process that much more difficult.”

She went on to say her students have also experienced several glitches and processing delays. 

“Some of the necessary corrections that they were told to make also weren’t always easy,” Pence noted. “On several occasions, my students would attempt to make their corrections and then the site would tell them that this action could not be performed at this time and to exit the form, then try again later. Even after exiting the form, they still weren’t able to adjust their corrections.”

Over the past several weeks, Pence said her students have not been able to get on the phone with a representative to discuss their troubles with the form and the live chat feature has also been unavailable.

FAFSA delays a federal issue

The problem isn’t just one plaguing high schools. Colleges and universities are dealing with another side of the issue. They have to wait to get the correct information from the federal government, before putting together an aid package. 

“The whole FAFSA issue is not something that the colleges invented,” Longwood Dean of Admissions Jason Ferguson explains. “It is a deck of cards that we were handed and dealt, and we’re all trying to make the best play on that hand that we possibly can.”

The simplified financial aid application that reduced the number of questions from more than a hundred to 30 or 40 is a good idea, but it was delayed at the outset, he explained. Then even when it was released at the first of the year, it “was still fraught with issues.”

“I think that going forward, if the bugs can be worked out,

it’s gonna be easier for families,” Ferguson said. “It’s just that delay and timing is what’s really hurt everybody.”

At Longwood, he said they have extended the hours that parents can connect. Their financial aid folks have been holding meetings through Zoom and in the evenings to assist.

“My office opened up more windows for people to come to campus and visit,” Ferguson said. “So we’re trying to do our best to make sure that families understand we’re here for them and, and we’re going to do the best we can to walk them through the process or walk them through the decision making.”

Longwood Dean of Admissions Jason Ferguson said they are working to get their financial aid offers out to students.

Ferguson said they were able to release their first and largest batch of offers at the end of April.

“With updated information that the federal government has given us, we sent another couple 100 out yesterday,” he said, referring to Tuesday, May 7. “So we’ve gotten to the point where we’re getting the data from the government, being able to process that and being able to get folks their financial offers.”

Hampden-Sydney Vice-President for Enrollment Jeff Norris said while the situation has drastically improved in recent weeks, many students and families continue to face delays and uncertainties depending on their specific circumstances.

“Throughout this fall and spring, Hampden-Sydney’s admission and financial aid team has been working tirelessly to support our prospective students and their families as they’ve navigated the major challenges the FAFSA debacle has created,” Norris said. “Our team has answered questions and provided guidance at every step of the way to the best of our ability.” 

He added that they are also seeing fewer families file the FAFSA than in recent years, which seems to be a national trend.

With the FAFSA problems, Longwood extended its deadline for students to May 15, while Hampden-Sydney has individually extended its deadlines for students and families who are still being affected by the FAFSA delays.

Ferguson estimates the problems with the financial aid application system have them 11- to 12-weeks behind where they would have been in the past.

“Typically we start putting packages out in February,” he said. “So it’s definitely made the cycle difficult.”

Advice from VCAC’s experts

Pence said her recommendation to students who still do not have the financial aid information they need is to stay calm.

“All you can truly do is stay calm, continue to check your student aid account to make sure that everything is done timely and correctly on your part, and wait patiently,” Pence said. “If you are concerned about enrollment deposit deadlines, I highly encourage you to contact the admissions office at the institution of your choice and inform them of your current circumstances.”

Wherever students are in the process, she said, whether they are waiting for the FAFSA form to be processed, trying to submit corrections or waiting for a contributor’s information, it is always best to keep the admissions office informed so that they don’t lose your seat. 

“In addition to that, students should be sure to attend any and all FAFSA events that are hosted by their school,” Pence said. “In addition to various after school workshops, I hosted a FAFSA night for parents and families this year at Cumberland High School and I was able to provide the necessary information to get their forms filled out correctly.”

Barbachano recommends students and their families should not be afraid to ask questions. 

“Locate your resources, be it a college adviser like myself, a financial aid adviser, or even contacting an institution’s financial aid department,” she said. “There might be something hidden. If you are relying on financial aid to afford school, like many of us, ask if they have leftover financial aid.”

Colleges will work with potential freshmen

College staff acknowledge the challenges FAFSA delays cause. The admissions officials say they are there to work with students and their families.

“I know across the country, we’re understanding people and we’re going to do the best we can,” Ferguson said.  “Obviously, there’s gonna come a time where we’ve got to make some decisions because this is the first step in a long line of summer process — course registration, housing, summer orientations. Those kinds of things.”

He noted that they will have to adhere to a deadline at some point.

“We definitely want families to understand that we’re in the fight with them,” Ferguson said, adding they will do their best to help students make the best decision possible.

Ferguson welcomes those still facing problems to call him on his cell phone at 804-334-4373.

Pence said all high school seniors across Virginia who are still experiencing challenges with filling out the form can make virtual FAFSA assistance appointments through June 28. VCAC is a college access organization based at the University of Virginia that places recent college graduates in high schools throughout the commonwealth to serve as college advisers. More information is available online at vcac.virginia.edu/.