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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    Students, families coping with FAFSA delays

    Gillian Riley, a senior at Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton who wants to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, said with a long educational path ahead of her, she needs to factor money into the decision of where she goes to college.

    But amid ongoing issues with the rollout of the overhaul of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that has delayed when students will learn about their financial aid packages, she is worried it’s going to be harder to make that decision.

    “It’s something I really have to think about, and, if I don’t get those packages until closer to the last minute, it’s going to be really hard to make that decision,” Riley said.

    She’s worried she will find out late in the process that she can’t afford the school she really wants to go to, which will be both heartbreaking and stressful because she’ll have to scramble to figure out which school she can afford.

    Riley is among students across the country who are facing worries and frustration amid FAFSA delays.

    Delays an ‘additional stressor’

    Jennifer Allanach, a college and career counselor at Robert E. Fitch High School, said the delays have a major impact on students and families because they often wait for financial aid packages to make a decision on where they can attend college.

    “It definitely has been an additional stressor this year just having to wait for that to be processed,” she said.

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, along with other members of Congress, sent a letter Monday asking how the U.S. Department of Education will communicate any further delays in FAFSA processing and “minimize the potential impact on students and families so they can make the most informed decision possible about their future.”

    The federal legislators said Congress passed a law in 2020 to simplify the FAFSA application form, update formulas for determining financial need, and allow more low-income students to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. But they said the U.S. Department of Education had less funding than it needed for the rollout.

    The Department of Education published the new FAFSA form “incrementally, beginning December 30th, 2023, nearly three months later than usual,” the legislators said.

    The legislators said the form “did not initially include legally mandated adjustments to the Income Protection Allowance,” and the department is fixing that, which will mean more financial aid for students. But it is causing delays.

    The Department of Education announced in a news release Tuesday that it was taking action so institutions will be able to process students’ information more quickly.

    Katie Hallisey, executive director of Higher Edge in New London, an organization that predominantly assists first-generation students with going to college, said students typically have about 6 weeks to review financial aid offers before making a decision on where to enroll by May 1, but financial aid packages aren’t expected to be released this year until April due to the delays.

    “That only gives students a couple weeks to figure it all out so that’s been really daunting,” she said.

    That may mean students trying to figure out their finances and scholarships potentially could decide to go to a college that wasn’t their top choice, or to go to community college because they know it will be more affordable, she said.

    Betsy Perkins, who owns a New London-based college admissions consultancy, Perkins & Murphy, with her husband, said the FAFSA form typically becomes available on Oct. 1, but this year the form didn’t go live until Dec. 31. She added there were also windows of time in which the form was open “but it was down more than it was up.”

    Colleges reacting

    The University of Connecticut announced it is extending the deadline to complete the FAFSA form to March 15 “to allow additional time for students to apply.”

    UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in a statement that UConn plans to inform students of admissions decisions on or before March 1. The university will not have financial aid decisions by then, but “barring any unexpected issues beyond the University’s control,” UConn plans to make financial aid offers well before May 1.

    Connecticut College Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid Andrew K. Strickler said in addition to the FAFSA, the school requires families to submit the CSS Profile, which requires more detailed financial information.

    “As a result, while the delay in the FAFSA will cause a slight headache for us, it will not be as severe as schools that ONLY rely on the FAFSA,” Strickler said. The college has been able to extend estimated financial aid awards to students.

    Reaching out

    Norwich Free Academy senior Rose Saint Eloi said that while completing the new FAFSA form was easier for her compared to when her sister applied to college, she said there were continuous breaks on the website when it was supposed to be available and then people couldn’t access it.

    Saint Eloi, who wants to major in criminal justice and become a crime analyst, said her mind is set on two colleges and she will go to whichever one offers the best financial aid package, but now she will have to wait a longer time to find out.

    She added she knows being stressed about the situation won’t help.

    “If you already got accepted into a school that’s one step closer to your goals, your path in life, but don’t let the little things shake you up,” she said, adding that the financial aid packages will eventually be released.

    Perkins encouraged students to reach out to school counselors and college financial aid officers with any questions.

    “Things are definitely getting better, but this is going to be a rocky road, and students should definitely take advantage of all the resources that they have and not be afraid to ask,” she said.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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