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News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Stop pointing fingers and fix faltering FAFSA

The Columbian
Published: February 22, 2024, 6:03am

Applying to college and figuring out the finances is stressful enough for students and families. The federal government has made it even more trying this year.

A new application portal of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid system has been beset with problems and has drawn complaints from throughout the country. As one local high school counselor told The Columbian: “We’re all kind of hanging in limbo. It’s causing stress for the families, and we can’t provide clear guidance.”

Glitches in the system have delayed education decisions and forced some colleges to put off application deadlines. In other words a process that involves billions of dollars and carves a path to the future for millions of high school students each year has ground to a halt.

The U.S. Education Department, which oversees the FAFSA system, launched a new website two months ago and vowed that it would be easier to use. Instead, according to media reports, applicants are getting stuck in repeating loops or being informed by the website that they already have accounts.

School counselors who try to help students are greeted with error messages but no indication of what the problem is. The Education Department has set up help lines, but they have been swamped with calls.

The net result is that there have been about half as many financial-aid applications compared with a typical year.

More than 100 federal lawmakers this month addressed a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, urging quick action. “Any delays in financial aid processing will most impact the students that need aid most,” the letter states. “For institutions to support students’ ability to make informed decisions about their future, they need clear guidance and resources from the department immediately on any and all next steps.”

Cardona soon announced that the Department of Education would be dedicating millions of dollars and resources to support “under-resourced” colleges with technical support.

The problem, however, does not appear to rest with the colleges. It appears the cause is a dysfunctional website the federal government promised would streamline the process. The focus should be on fixing the actual problem and easing the minds of students and parents.

The quickest path is to bolster assistance online and over the phone. Well-trained workers should be available to walk parents through the process.

In the long run, congressional attention is warranted. Democrats have called for assurances that some students don’t fall through the cracks. Republicans have called for an investigation from the Government Accountability Office. Both moves are necessary to ease the chaos, but some of the blame rests with Congress.

The Department of Education was ordered to simplify the FAFSA form at the same time it was expected to begin collecting student-loan payments, which had been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Congress did not provide the funding that department officials said was necessary to undertake two massive projects.

Finger-pointing, however, should not supplant the need to immediately ease the burden for parents and aspiring college students. May 1 is the traditional day for college decisions to be finalized, when schools can get an idea of how many new faces will be on campus in the fall and students can start envisioning their future.

With that date drawing near, quick solutions are necessary.