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Glitches in new simplified financial aid application creates headaches at Nevada colleges

The issues with the new federal system have led to a decrease in financial aid application submission and completion rates across the country.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
Higher Education

Geoffrey Green, the manager of financial aid and scholarships at UNR, sits at a table outside the university’s student union on a chilly April morning, ready to talk with students for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Week of Action.

It hasn’t all been rosy this time around. An attempt to make it easier for students to apply for federal financial aid to attend college has led to a series of issues that has delayed Nevada colleges’ ability to get that assistance out to students and a 43 percent drop in the state’s year-over-year completion of the FAFSA form.

“I think the long-term of this application will make it a lot easier,” Green said. But, “because of all of the back-end updates last year, there's been a lot of bugs, a lot of delays as far as getting the FAFSA working in the way we want it to look.”

College students need to fill out the FAFSA form before the start of each academic year. Typically, it is available starting Oct. 1 each year, but last year the new form wasn’t launched until late December

Other issues include delays in getting students’ FAFSA data to colleges, errors in the formula used to calculate how much financial aid students can qualify for and glitches that make it difficult for undocumented parents to fill out the form. Colleges are also finding errors in some of the students' data they’ve received so far from the U.S. Department of Education, and some students aren’t able to access their applications to make corrections.  

The FAFSA is not only a prerequisite for federal aid, such as need-based Pell grants, but it’s often a requirement for local and state scholarships as well. These financial packages are crucial in some students’ decisions on where to go to college or whether they can afford to attend at all. 

The Department of Education blamed Congress for the delays because it refused requests for additional resources. Congressional Republicans counter that the department is too focused on student debt relief to prioritize the FAFSA overhaul.

Geoffrey Green, the manager of financial aid and scholarships at the University of Nevada, Reno, poses for a photo outside the Joe Crowley Student Union on April 15, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

But until all of the issues are resolved, it's unclear when colleges will be able to give students a clear picture of how much financial aid they can expect to receive. 

UNR undergraduate Kesley Morris said the FAFSA delays have added stress to her already hectic life. She counts on multiple scholarships and a job at Outback Steakhouse to fund her education. 

“If the FAFSA is not being processed then I'm not going to get the scholarship money on time and then I have to therefore figure out how to pay like $1,000 more dollars on top of what I have to pay,” Morris said.

Morris said the new system was quicker, but glitchier; she had to fill out the new application twice because the site did not save her information.

In addition to the delays, the U.S. Department of Education on March 22 announced a miscalculation on the form related to dependent students reporting assets on the FAFSA, resulting in information sent to colleges needing to be reprocessed. 

The culmination of the delays has caused a domino effect that David Bergeron, a former senior Education Department official, called, in a Politico report, “equivalent at some level to the IRS not being able to collect tax returns on April 15.” 

UNR Director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships Lourdes Gonzales said the Reno-based institution typically sends out financial aid offer letters to students signing up for fall classes at the end of February to early March, but because of the FAFSA issues, including the errors in student data, UNR hasn’t been able to send those letters out yet.    

Kesley Morris, a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, poses for a photo inside the Reynolds School of Journalism on April 15, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

UNLV Executive Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships Zack Goodwin estimates 20 percent to 50 percent of the data that the Las Vegas-based university has received has some type of error, putting the university’s financial aid offer letters at least two months behind schedule. 

The delays stem from the FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed in Congress in 2020 and aimed to streamline the form and expand student aid eligibility. During an April 4 press conference and tour of a Las Vegas elementary school, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the previous FAFSA form was difficult to fill out and could take about an hour to complete, but the new form should take about 15-20 minutes to complete. 

The IRS can now verify the limited tax information from the student directly to the Department of Education in real time.  

About 6 million students receive the Pell Grant each year. With the changes to the FAFSA, 610,000 new students are expected to receive the Pell Grant during the 2024-25 school year. 

In Nevada, more than 5,000 new students will be eligible for the Pell Grant and more than 10,000 will be eligible for the maximum amount, which was $7,395 last year, according to José Quiroga, a research analyst for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

“We're still waiting for the amount for this coming year,” he said.

A sign advertising the FAFSA Week of Action at University of Nevada, Reno outside the Joe Crowley Student Union on April 15, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Despite the expanded eligibility to financial aid and simplification of the application process, officials at multiple levels of the higher education system are constantly dealing with the symptoms of the delays.

Cardona said his team is working around the clock to address the issues.

“So it's a 24/7 focus for me right now, the highest priority I have as secretary of education,” he said. “But I know at the end of the day, more students are going to have access to college … and with the cost of college these days, it's really important that we fix a broken system.”  

Some experts are concerned that these issues could result in fewer students attending college this fall. Maintaining a healthy enrollment rate is often the financial lifeline for universities and colleges because of the money they receive from tuition and fees.

As of March 29, 40 percent fewer high school students nationwide had completed the FAFSA compared to the same day last year, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. 

An analysis of the data by On EdTech found that Nevada is seeing a 43 percent drop in its year-over-year FAFSA completion rate during the same time period. 

Some universities in neighboring California have decided to send “provisional” aid offers, or estimated aid offers, for now as a temporary measure before they can send out final offers. 

UNLV is doing something similar. UNLV has its own financial aid form that gives students an estimate of how much support they can expect to receive from the university and federal sources while it continues to wait to send students final award letters. 

“We just want students to have something in their hands that's going to be reasonably accurate so that they can hopefully make some better informed decisions,” Goodwin said. “As much as the things that may be delayed, the one thing that isn't going to be delayed is the start of fall classes.”

Students walk by the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, Reno on April 15, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Gonzales said UNR has responded by pushing back its FAFSA priority filing deadline when students need to submit their information in order to receive the maximum amount of financial aid to April 26 and its admissions deadline for freshman to June 1. Previously, the FAFSA priority deadline was Feb. 15 and the freshman admissions deadline was April 7. 

Quiroga said that along with extending deadlines, Nevada colleges and universities are prioritizing communication with students.

“Especially for first-year students …  it can really affect their plans of going to college, and how to pay for that,” Quiroga said. “I know all of our financial aid offices are meeting with students one-on-one.”

Quiroga said financial aid offices have developed more online resources for students who don’t have the time to meet on campus. 

Though experts are concerned the delays could result in a lower enrollment rate, Quiroga and CSN Director of Financial Aid Peter Hurley said it’s too early to tell to what extent the delays will affect enrollment. However, he encourages students to get the FAFSA done sooner rather than later to increase the student’s chances of receiving funds before the money runs out.

“We're hoping that the delay in students completing their FAFSA is related to the rough start. Nobody likes to be first and that's completely understandable,” Hurley said. “But the FAFSA has always been the type of application that you want to complete as early as you can.”

Despite the issues, Goodwin said one positive that has come from the revamped FAFSA form is that he’s heard students say it’s easier and takes less time to fill out. He also estimates that about half or more of UNLV’s undergraduate students will be eligible for a Pell Grant with the changes made to the Department of Education’s methodology for determining eligibility. Goodwin said about 40 percent of UNLV students previously qualified for it.

“At least that part does seem to be working — it really does seem to be meeting the goal of expanding that eligibility,” he said.


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