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News / Northwest

Washington students could forfeit thousands dollars if they don’t submit application

Rollout of new FAFSA — a streamlined form with fewer questions and restrictions — has been calamitous

By Jenn Smith, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2024, 5:37pm

Requesting college financial aid has not been easy this year because of technical glitches and processing backlogs with the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

But Washington state college experts urge applicants to not lose sight of the benefit: getting more money to attain a higher education.

Ruben Flores, executive director of the Washington State Council of Presidents, said the calamitous rollout of the new FAFSA — a streamlined form with fewer questions and restrictions — has added more worry to a state already wringing its hands over an overall decline in the number of college-bound students. (The council represents the state’s five public universities and one public college.)

Application rates nationwide are down this year. As of April 5, only about 28 percent of the nation’s high school seniors completed a FAFSA, according to the National College Attainment Network’s tracking tool. Only about 22 percent of Washington seniors have submitted a completed form.

The Evergreen State ranks 44th in completions among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Historically, Washington has had some of the lowest tallies of FAFSA completion rates in the nation.

But state officials say that when the forms go through, the applications could lead to aid that will offset student debt down the road.

“Awards will come through eventually, so please don’t give up!” Katie Tallman, a spokesperson for the Washington Student Achievement Council, wrote via email. “About half of families in Washington qualify for aid, and for many students, tuition could even be free with WA Grant,” the state’s college aid program.

More people eligible for aid

Expansion of the federal Pell Grant fund made nearly 15,000 Washington students eligible to receive federal money this year. The form also unlocks opportunities for state funding. But many applicants may have to wait longer than anticipated for confirmation of this and other federal financial awards — like other grants, work-study funds and loans.

Colleges face a continuing lag and some discrepancies in data coming from the federal government that helps financial aid officers make award determinations. To meet admissions deadlines, officers must process more applications in a shorter period of time.

In a typical financial aid cycle, many students have financial aid offers in hand by April so they can make decisions by May 1, a common college decision deadline. But students and families should continue to expect delays in receiving award letters, Tallman said.

To accommodate for these changes, all of Washington’s public institutions extended their admissions decision deadline to June 1, as did many private colleges, including Gonzaga, Pacific Lutheran, Saint Martin’s, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle and Whitworth universities, as well as the University of Puget Sound.

Heritage University is accepting enrollment decisions on a rolling basis until late summer. Whitman College is awarding financial aid packages based on information collected without the FAFSA.

As part of the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., strongly advocated for FAFSA reform and worked on the FAFSA rewrite.

But as the rollout faltered, she joined her legislative colleagues in calling on the U.S. Department of Education for swift resolutions. In February, Murray co-signed a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona requesting an updated timeline for resolutions and details about how the department is communicating with prospective students and campuses about these issues. The letter also asks whether these implementation challenges have been caused by a lack of resources.

The Department of Education deployed personnel, funding, resources and technology to support the rollout and processing of what the department calls “Better FAFSA.” The department said in a February news release that these resources are focused on “lower-resourced schools that may have a smaller number of administrative staff and may utilize older software systems.”

In an emailed response last week, Murray called the overhaul “no small feat” but said she understands the frustrations felt by the delays. “It’s imperative they are addressed as soon as possible so that students across Washington state and the country get the full aid they are due — and have the information they need to make big decisions about their futures,” Murray wrote.

Take action, despite delays

While families wait for official offers, they can go to the Washington Student Achievement Council website to calculate a potential financial aid award for the 2024-25 school year for the Washington College Grant, a generous state program that could pay for tuition. The tool is available in multiple languages and asks users to enter family size and income information. That information is not collected by WSAC, according to the website, portal.wsac.wa.gov/a/aid-calculator.

Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. That means there are thousands of dollars to help students pay for tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities, most two-year community colleges, and many career, trade and online schools. This year, about 24,000 Washington students will be eligible to receive the maximum Pell Grant amount of $7,395.

Getting that money in hand, however, depends on a FAFSA being filed and processed correctly.

Under the new law that led to FAFSA changes, IRS income-verification information is now automatically provided to the Department of Education instead of students having to request tax records themselves. But Flores, the Washington State Council of Presidents leader, said he’s heard of local students encountering technical issues with how IRS data is fed into the new form.

“The student didn’t put it in wrong, but the information is wrong the way we received it. So, they have to redo those applications,” he said.

Flores said colleges are also experiencing delays in receiving data from resubmitted applications, adding more work and pressure on financial aid office staff to meet deadlines.

It’s been a monthslong wait for students and families to be able to file corrections in the FAFSA system. But the corrections feature is now updated at StudentAid.gov and appears to be functioning. Once a student submits a correction, it should be received by schools and states within one to three days. Last Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it has “successfully processed more than 100,000 corrections.”

Of the some 7 million FAFSA forms submitted, the department said last week, as many as 16 percent require a student correction. For the 20 percent of forms requiring a tax information correction, the department aims to reprocess and return the results to schools by May 1.

The department also launched its “National FAFSA Week of Action” last Monday to mobilize schools, athletic and extracurricular programs, and other youth-oriented organizations to get high school seniors in particular to file a FAFSA.

For the record, there’s no age limit on receiving federal college aid. But, as Flores noted, the majority of Washington’s college students are between high school age and 24 years old.

While students have a lot of time to submit a FAFSA — June 30, 2025, is the federal deadline for the 2024-25 school year — Flores and other college experts advise people to submit their forms as soon as possible and to check with their prospective schools and colleges about decision deadlines.

“We want students to be aware that we are going to continue to be flexible throughout this process,” he said.

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