Higher education is in triage mode as it scrambles to lessen the negative impacts from this year’s delayed rollout of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Triage—the term for directing medical treatment to the most serious cases—certainly applies here. After all, the challenges in implementing the long-overdue effort to simplify the FAFSA have affected millions of families, straining the capacity of college counseling and financial aid offices nationwide.

The “better FAFSA” has been touted for its simplicity. But as sometimes happens, simplification introduces complexities. Much has been written about how we got here, but in the spirit of dedicated first responders, I want to urge college leaders, access providers, financial aid officers, government officials, and others to work together to minimize any further harm to those most in need—our students.

The FAFSA allows colleges to determine prospective students’ eligibility for financial aid. The students, in turn, can then see the actual cost of attending the college of their choice. This year, however, the FAFSA opening for fall 2024 was delayed three months. Processing the forms is behind schedule, meaning students may not have the information they need to meet enrollment deadlines.

All of this only worsens a challenging situation for those who want to encourage more students to pursue higher education. Only about half of last year’s graduating high school seniors filled out the FAFSA. Those not completing this form likely missed out on more than $4 billion in Pell Grant money.

This year could be worse—both in students passing up higher ed and in the amount of Pell Grant money left on the table. At the end of March, FAFSA completion was down 40 percent from last year.

There’s time later to figure out what went wrong. For now, all of higher ed is working to limit the damage and keep the disaster from worsening: FAFSA-completion events are happening across the country. Higher ed leaders and hard-working college access and financial aid professionals are rising to the challenge of finding creative solutions to help students.

Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told CNBC, “There are a lot of colleges that are actually extending their deadlines.” Perez went on to say, “Typically, the deadline for enrollment in the United States is May 1, but you will see that a lot of colleges and universities are extending those, sometimes by a few weeks, sometimes by a month.”

At the State University of New York, a system that includes 64 colleges and universities, Chancellor John B. King Jr. urged SUNY presidents to extend deadlines for enrollment deposits and look for other compassionate and flexible measures that will enable students to make informed decisions.

“Since Pell-eligible students will be the population most heavily impacted by these delays, campuses should do everything possible to ensure there are no reductions in Pell enrollments in the Fall 2024 incoming class due to uncertainty about pending financial aid awards,” King wrote.

Similarly, Rachelle Feldman, vice provost for enrollment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently told the House higher education subcommittee that the delays have especially hurt vulnerable students and families.

“Millions of students rely on the support they receive from guidance counselors or outreach programs in order to not just complete the FAFSA, but make crucial college decisions,” she said. “Those students are going to graduate and not have those resources. We cannot leave behind talented minds simply because they rely on financial aid to go to college.”

At some institutions—including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), where most students rely on need-based aid to attend college—leadership and staff are concerned about how this delay might hamper students’ ability to enroll and graduate.

David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, an HBCU in Maryland, notes that delays in the FAFSA process are a particular concern for institutions such as his, which serve many first-generation students who may be discouraged by the delays and miss critical opportunities for economic prosperity. He urges policy leaders to allow colleges to use earlier income data to determine aid awards for returning students.

Even with all these challenges, we know there will be immediate and tangible benefits to students once all the kinks associated with this year’s rollout have been sorted out.

“The launch of the simplified, redesigned, and streamlined 2024-25 FAFSA form ensures 610,000 more students from low-income backgrounds receive federal Pell Grants,” said the U.S. Department of Education in January. “Additionally, Pell recipients will receive more aid, with nearly 1.5 million more students receiving the maximum Pell Grant.”

Understandably, Rachelle Feldman and others are already worrying about next year—whether there will be more delays, and whether more people will be left behind.

But eventually? “I think we’re in for a better world and financial aid being a lifeline for millions of students,” she said. “We have to make this work.”

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Back to News