States bristle at federal plea to push financial aid deadlines

April 4, 2024
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The rocky rollout of a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) had already forced almost a quarter of the nation’s states to bump back their local scholarship application deadlines. Last Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged them to move the goal post once again.

Not only did the secretary’s letter suggest state governors should push back any aid deadlines currently listed before or through the end of May, it also encouraged them to ensure their legislature properly budgets for potential increases in state grant aid that may be needed based on changes in Pell Grant eligibility.

Many state higher education officials and national association leaders have voiced frustration with the tone and timing of the department’s letter, which came just four days after the agency had announced another major calculation error. But they’ve also acknowledged that mitigating the FAFSA fiasco will require flexibility and an “all hands on deck” response.

Some agree that under the circumstances, because FAFSA flaws could interfere with students’ ability to receive the state aid they deserve, pushing deadlines back is a must.

“We have students who through no fault of their own have been unable to submit a FAFSA, and we do not believe those students should be penalized,” said Catherine Brown, senior director of policy for the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a coalition of groups that work on college access and success. “We need every state that has a deadline that could stand in the way of a student receiving state financial aid to push them back.”

A Necessary Evil

According to data from NCAN, 22 states have deadlines that have already passed or are impending in mid-April or May, and therefore would be subject to Cardona’s request. Eight of those states—Arizona, California, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and Utah—have already moved their deadlines at least once.

Frank Ballmann, director of federal relations for the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, said that, for these states, the federal agency is asking “for something that’s already been done.” No one is happy about it, he said, but there’s a general consensus that “at this point, we just need to fix what needs fixing.”

“Generally speaking, we’re just trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “Because ultimately, we all have the same goal. We all want to have FAFSA completion rates that are 60-plus percent for high school seniors.”

Some stakeholders, however, say that the tone of Cardona’s letter came off as insensitive. One higher education aid expert pointed to a specific line at the top of the letter which reads, “We must work together to support the completion of the 2024–25 FAFSA.”

“I am just like, OK, yes, we must, but rather than have you tell us what to do, wouldn’t it be better to ask states: how can we help?” the expert said. “If you ask for help, you might get suggestions for what ideas we have, but when you tell us what to do now, it suggests that you’re trying to shift the blame for a bad FAFSA cycle.”

Brown of NCAN acknowledged that “it’s certainly been a very complicated and difficult year for everyone involved with the FAFSA.” She also acknowledged that not all state financial aid officials can move the deadline on their own without action by legislators. But still, she said, it’s important that someone pushes state leaders, whether they be higher ed officials or lawmakers, to do so. 

Was Cardona the best messenger to do that, given the department’s botched rollout of the FAFSA, and did he handle it in the best fashion? “I’m not sure,” Brown said. “But we [at NCAN] have a very strong view that it’s critically important that no deadline gets in the way of students receiving the financial aid to which they’re entitled.”

Cautiously Flexible

Still, despite a potentially poor delivery, state aid agencies have demonstrated considerable flexibility in working with the Department of Education so far. As such, experts say it’s likely that some states with imminent deadlines will answer Cardona’s most recent call.

Texas, for example, traditionally sets a priority deadline of January 15 for its Toward Excellence, Access and Success Grant Program. But last October, when the FAFSA rollout was first delayed, state lawmakers moved the date back to March 15 and, in February, the state coordinating board moved it back again, this time to April 15.

Shareea Woods, director of the Texas College Access Network, said that although she hasn’t heard anything from the board yet, another pushback isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Although the Education Department has resolved some major glitches and boosted student access in recent weeks, Woods said the completion rate for FAFSA and state aid applications is still well below where it should be. Only 38 percent of high school seniors in the state had submitted the form as of March 15, compared to 61 percent by the same date last year.

Mike Eddleman, a spokesperson for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that Cardona’s deadline request is “being monitored” by board staff “but we can’t comment on when or if the decision to delay again will be made.”

California has also already moved its deadline twice, but unlike Texas, its most recent deadline was moved to May 2. And Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, said her state is not planning on pushing it back any further.

For officials in Texas and California alike, one of the biggest factors behind the decision to change application deadlines was the inability for mixed-status students—U.S. residents with at least one parent who does not have a Social Security number—to fill out the FAFSA. But that glitch was resolved on March 12. Now, Garcia said it is important to keep the deadline where it is and ensure students can get the information they need to decide which college is best for them in a timely fashion.

“We’re talking about the students who are the lowest income who are having to delay their consideration of different colleges based on what financial aid information they have at their disposal,” she said. “So, that’s number one; every decision we’re making is about what can we do to help facilitate this process and help students make an informed choice about their college studies.”

Woods said that while she isn’t opposed to a May deadline, she fears pushing it any further could come with a whole new host of “very dangerous” consequences.

If FAFSA and state aid applications aren’t due until June, the high school year will already have ended; and for many seniors, especially those who need the most support to access proper aid, this could mean they no longer have access to the same guidance and resources as before.

“If we push the deadline out so far, that’s a situation where students, families and advisers don’t think it’s a priority. And then they don’t complete the form,” she said. “Typically, now would be the time where students start receiving their award letters; they’re starting to make decisions. And this year, we’re still trying to get these FAFSAs in.” 

“Moving the deadlines back doesn’t just challenge us on the front end,” she added. “It pushes everything back.”



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