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News / Northwest

Why some WA students are still waiting for college financial aid

By Jenn Smith, The Seattle Times
Published: June 6, 2024, 7:44am

SEATTLE — After months of confronting glitching forms, reporting errors and reprocessing efforts, Washington colleges have finally handed off financial aid award letters to thousands of students.

The delays didn’t affect eligibility, but did force students to make enrollment decisions much later in the year. Many students received financial aid offers just weeks before the June 1 decision deadlines to commit to an institution for the fall. Others are still waiting for their Free Application for Federal Student Aid to be processed or reprocessed by the government.

The FAFSA has long been criticized for its complexity. Last year, the U.S. Education Department rolled out a greatly simplified form. But the new form immediately developed technical problems.

In Washington, some financial aid officials say numerous applications still need to be corrected and processed.

Only about a third of the state’s high school graduating class has filled out a form to date, lagging the national average. Across all states, about 42% of graduating seniors have finished the form, down 14% compared with the previous school year.

As of May 17, the Federal Student Aid office said it had processed 9.7 million FAFSA forms and sent that data to schools, states, and designated scholarship organizations. Some 1.5 million corrections have been addressed so far.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who has been criticized for the botched rollout, outlined new steps last Thursday to overhaul the nation’s Office of Federal Student Aid. Those steps include replacing the chief operating officer, creating a new technology team and planning summer listening sessions with affected students, families and colleges.

Cardona and his office also face pressure from Republican leaders to comply with records requests for an ongoing investigation into the FAFSA rollout that involves the Government Accountability Office.

College aid officials say the current priority is to finish processing the forms needed for kids attending college in 2024-25.

Having to process just as many requests as previous years in around half the time has pushed financial aid office staff to the max. “The financial aid community is stressed out. It’s been a very, very trying time,” said Joy Scourey, assistant vice provost for Student Financial Services at Washington State University.

The institution began sending out financial aid letters during the first week of May. But more than a third of the financial aid eligibility reports the college received from the government were flagged for reprocessing, Scourey said. Among the reasons: corrections the federal Education Department needed to make due to an error caused by the FAFSA processing system, and additional documents and tax information needed from students. Scourey said finalizing financial aid offers for some applicants may take until the end of June, well past the institution’s June 1 priority decision deadline.

Like many institutions, Scourey said WSU is trying to remain flexible while offering aid and enrolling students as soon as possible.

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Paul Seegert, the University of Washington’s director of admissions, said the institution is allowing a “small number” of students who do not yet have their financial aid information to commit to enrolling after the June 1 decision deadline.

“Our enrollment confirmations are looking good,” he said via email, despite the delays.

The UW also received many student financial aid applications that were flagged for errors or missing information.

“There were also several months when we weren’t able to see students’ application information in the federal system so we could not advise them on their next steps to complete the FAFSA,” said Kay Lewis, UW’s executive director of financial aid and scholarships.

She encouraged students not to give up on applying for aid and going to college.

Money still available

Expansion of the federal Pell Grant fund made nearly 15,000 Washington students eligible to receive federal money this year who wouldn’t have qualified under previous criteria. Both Lewis and Scourey said they’ve seen upticks in eligibility among applicants.

And after winter’s glitches, the financial aid application process seems to be running more smoothly this spring.

“We’ve had some students applying be able to finish in 10, 12, 15 minutes, with some calling us asking, ‘Is that it?’” Lewis said.

But she emphasized that technical problems persist. And she worries that students who need the most aid are not getting notified quickly enough.

The last big scramble for financial aid staff was during the pandemic, when campus attendance was thrown into chaos by COVID-19.

Lewis said the crisis has underscored how important it is for students and families from low- and middle-income backgrounds to get aid. In addition to covering tuition, fees and learning materials, federal aid gives students money for living expenses like food and transportation. For many, it’s a lifeline.

Even though they’re more likely to qualify for aid, low-income students in the Evergreen State trail their higher-income peers by about 10% in FAFSA completion rates, according to an application tracker published by the National College Attainment Network. A similar gap persists between students living in cities versus rural areas.

In Walla Walla, Whitman College, a private liberal arts school that enrolled 1,544 students last fall, has spent the past several years revamping its financial aid process and timeline. There, student financial assistance draws largely from the institution’s endowment and other college funds and is supplemented by government aid. In addition to encouraging students to fill out a FAFSA, Whitman uses the College Scholarship Service Profile administered through the College Board to make nonfederal aid determinations for students.

The CSS Profile requires applicants to submit their most recently completed tax returns, W-2 forms and other current income records, asset information and bank statements.

Adam Miller, Whitman’s vice president for admission and financial aid, said the college leaned on the CSS Profile data in calculating award packages. “We also do this early financial aid program where we start providing families financial aid awards before they even apply. So we start doing that in October,” he said.

The risk of this approach, he said, is that if a student doesn’t get the federal funding that the college estimated for them, the college assumes the balance. Most of the incoming students for the fall semester made a decision before May 1, with about a hundred students asking for more time to decide.

“We feel like we’re in a really good enrollment situation in a year where a lot of colleges are still scrambling to bring in an incoming class,” Miller said.

While Whitman is still waiting for confirmation of federal aid for some students, Miller said the financial projections his team calculated “are all pretty much spot on.” The college is also in the process of making awards for returning students. Like other institutions, Whitman will be looking at its data to see exactly how many more students were eligible for federal and state aid this year. Between 20% and 24% of Whitman students receive Pell Grants each year.

Moving the financial aid piece — something that’s typically determined at the end of the admissions process — to the start is “a game-changer for a lot of families,” Miller said.

One of the major FAFSA changes was streamlining the form from more than 100 questions to 36. Lewis said she’d like to see at least one question returned to the form: Where will students plan to live while going to school? Knowing whether a student will be living at home or paying for a campus residence could be helpful in determining aid, she said.

She said she’d also like to see more testing of the updated form before the typical Oct. 1 launch date.\

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