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FAFSA delays persist as college enrollment deadlines loom

girl at desk with laptop as woman helps with work
Hillsborough Education Foundation
/
Courtesy
College and Career Coordinator Shelby Hearn-Belluso helps a student at King High School at their Student Center of Post Secondary Exploration (SCOPE).

Some students are fixing their FAFSA forms or awaiting aid packages with little time to decide to which college they'll commit.

The new federal student aid form, or FAFSA, has been marked with errors and delays since its rollout last December.

Some colleges and universities pushed back their commitment deadlines as they scrambled to get financial aid packages to prospective students, who rely on the aid to attend college.

But issues are now running up against even the extended deadlines.

Some students are still correcting errors in their FAFSA form or waiting to receive financial aid packages, said college prep organizations.

"Most concerning to us is that this has an outsized effect for the most vulnerable students," said Thomas Williams, director of PLANit Sarasota, which helps students apply to college. "For those who are dependent on this aid, they need to know the specifics of what they can receive."

The U.S. Department of Education sends colleges data from the FAFSA form. That information is then used by colleges and universities to determine how much money students can receive in grants, scholarships, loans or work study dollars.

But this year, students didn't get to fill out the form until the end of last December.

Issues with the launch

The simplified version cut down on the amount of time spent filling it out.

But the launch hasn't been entirely smooth. Errors in the funding formula, including failing to account for inflation, bogged down the process.

A workaround for students and parents who do not have a social security number has not been foolproof either, causing delays for some mixed-status families.

Ultimately, financial data didn't get distributed to schools until mid-March, months after the usual time in January. That left universities just weeks to process applications and send out award packages.

More than 300 colleges and universities pushed their enrollment deadlines past the traditional May 1 date to accommodate, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which tracks the information for member institutions.

The Universities of Florida, South Florida and Central Florida pushed back their commitment deadlines to May 15.

Elizabeth Shelby, director of Impact for the Hillsborough Education Foundation, said the FAFSA is always a confusing process for families, but this year has required more patience.

"[We're] being a little bit more diligent with working with the students and their parents as well to provide support for FAFSA," said Shelby.

Applications are down

Federal data collected through May 3 shows that there's been about a 20% drop in the number of FAFSA completions in the U.S. compared to last year.

In Florida, the percentage decrease is around 26%.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis, however, finds that the total number of usable applications dropped at least 35% when accounting for applications that were rejected due to errors.

The University of South Florida has sent award packages to 13,449 incoming students, which is down 19% from the same time last year, according to Billie Hamilton, the university's assistant vice president of enrollment, planning and management.

Hamilton said about 1,500 students have rejected forms that they need to fix.

Florida Gulf Coast University, whose commitment deadline was May 1, said all award packages have been sent out to incoming students who submitted a valid FAFSA.

The total number of FAFSA applications the university received for the 2024-25 school year is 13,560 — a 25% decrease from the previous year's 18,130.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week $50 million in additional funds that will go to organizations and efforts aimed at helping students complete the FAFSA.

Federal officials said nine million students have submitted the FAFSA so far this year, and that they can expect their records to be sent to colleges within one to three days.

Shelby said her group will continue to provide help to students throughout the summer, but hopes that most issues with the form will be resolved sooner rather than later.

"My hope is that we're still not having these conversations in June," Shelby said.

Williams said college prep organizations like PLANit Sarasota are concerned that this year's delays will cause more students to decide against attending college. They also plan to continue engaging students and families throughout the summer.

"We know historically when students take a year off or take a semester off, sometimes, if they start working or they get involved in other activities, they don't come back to it. So that is a concern for all of us," Williams said.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.