Malfunctions in the US government’s system for determining financial aid have left millions of lower-income students uncertain about whether they can afford to attend university just weeks before they must decide whether and where to enroll.

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Key Takeaways

  • Nearly 400 schools, including UCLA, Wisconsin, and William & Mary, have been forced to delay their traditional May 1 deadline for students to accept places for the upcoming academic year.
  • Several elite private schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, have so far stuck by their May 1 deadlines, while being forced to switch to alternative methods of assessing financial aid to students to offset tuition and housing expenses that can top $80,000 a year.
  • The delays raise fears that lower-income students could abandon higher education, threatening the survival of the colleges that serve them.

Financial Aid System Breakdown: Why Did It Happen?

The breakdown centers on the US Department of Education’s primary evaluation system that feeds data on applicants’ financial needs to American universities, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (Fafsa) service. Changes designed to simplify Fafsa and provide greater financial support instead led to a series of delays in the launch of the new online system, errors in calculations, suspicions over questions about undocumented parents, and the need for parents and their children to answer together.

Impact on Students and Colleges

Financial aid packages have become an increasingly important metric for US students deciding on which university to attend as the average nominal cost for a four-year education at Ivy League and other elite schools has approached $350,000. The delays and uncertainties have led to many families not committing to a college due to a lack of clarity on the total cost and the level of assistance they’ll receive.

The US Department of Education said almost 4 million students had already “successfully submitted” applications, and that it was streamlining its procedures and providing funding and support from officials to help under-resourced colleges handle the additional work.

Gabrielle Moore, a first-year student at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, DC, who is facing $30,000 in costs after aid annually, said she had still not been able to complete the online form to clarify her aid for the coming academic year.

“It’s been very stressful,” said Moore.

The setbacks have highlighted the skyrocketing costs and labyrinthine complexity of the US higher education system, with applicants struggling to understand the discounts, scholarships, and subsidized loans available. Plans by the Biden administration to waive $400bn in student debt have been blocked by the Supreme Court, but it has so far offered write-offs estimated at $138bn. This situation underscores the need for clearer, more efficient systems to support students and colleges alike in navigating the financial aid process.

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