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Federal financial aid stress continues for Arkansas universities, students

High school students fill out financial aid forms and are able to submit them as early as October.
Elissa Nadworny
Schools and students are coping with challenges from the delayed rollout of FAFSA.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Nearly four months after the delayed rollout of an updated federal financial aid form, Arkansas colleges and universities continue to face challenges in accessing accurate information needed to award funding to students.

Although implementation of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form has been less than ideal, college officials agreed difficulties were to be expected and the changes will create an easier application process once the system is working efficiently.

The FAFSA form, which is being updated as a result of congressional action, is used to award federal aid like Pell Grants, as well as state scholarships, like the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship. Arkansas education officials announced in January they would grant conditional approval of state scholarship applications as the federal government addressed issues associated with the FAFSA revamp.

Arkansas State University Director of Financial Aid Christina Kostick has worked in financial aid for more than 13 years and said this is the biggest overhaul of the FAFSA she’s seen. The new form asks fewer questions, which might make applying easier, but it’s also pulling information from different agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security, and work needs to be done to better integrate those systems, she said.

Previously, the FAFSA form became available in October and students’ information was transferred to institutions a few days after forms were completed. This year, the new form wasn’t released until Dec. 31, and ASU didn’t begin receiving data until late March.

Information reported on the FAFSA is delivered to colleges through Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs). ASU typically receives more than 20,000 ISIRs a year, but had only received about a third of those earlier this month.

Once the form became available, families experienced delays accessing the online system because it would keep temporarily shutting down as officials discovered and fixed new bugs in the system, Kostick said.

“It’s kind of like throwing darts at a dart board,” she said.

Changes for the 2024-2025 application include requiring every contributor (students and parents) to have a StudentAid.gov account and to provide consent to have their federal tax information transferred directly from the IRS.

In the past, Kostick said students and parents could work on the form together, but now students must complete their portion before inviting parents via an emailed link to contribute their information.

The two-step process is a way to protect personal data, she said, but parents have encountered glitches where they can’t access the form. The system is submitting the incomplete applications to colleges and Kostick said ASU has received several rejected forms because they’re missing parents’ signatures.

University officials said families have been unable to reopen the application for corrections like completing a parent’s signature, adding a new school where they’d like their information sent or updating financial information that’s changed as a result of life circumstances.

ASU junior Jaylyn Jefferson said the inability to easily correct the FAFSA form caused her to be incredibly careful while completing the application.

“I was just very cautious of how I filled out the application, that I got everything correct the first time because I’ve heard that you can’t get back into the application after you submit it,” Jefferson said. “So I just wanted to make sure I had everything done the correct way and was thorough with it.”

Federal Student Aid, the U.S. Department of Education office that manages FAFSA, announced a process for making corrections on Wednesday and noted it may take one to three days to process those updates.

Jefferson has relied on scholarships as she’s pursued her nursing degree, as well as the Pell Grant, which she said is helpful because students don’t have to pay it back.

“Tuition and [the] cost of just being in school is expensive, so any little help we get is always great and also having the option of being able to take out loans if needed,” Jefferson said. “It just is a great reminder that it’s going to be possible to complete school and even if you take a loan out, the government is trying their best to help us in any way they can.”

President Joe Biden earlier this month announced a student debt forgiveness proposal that, if finalized, would include a one-time cancellation of all accrued interest for 23 million borrowers.

Troubleshooting and communication

Universities have tweaked their systems to process the data from the updated FAFSA form. They’ve had to run their own tests, and as they discover additional problems, they report them to federal officials who work on solutions.

Kostick said ASU’s staff has been very patient and flexible as they’ve navigated the new process, but she noted that the national rollout wasn’t as thought out as it could have been.

“The runway wasn’t long enough for us to address these issues,” she said.

Kostick said they’ve also asked students to be patient as they work out the kinks “because we’re all experiencing the same things together.”

Communication has been key for officials like Kevin Thomas, vice president for enrollment services and student success at the University of Central Arkansas. He said they’ve been proactive about reaching out to families.

“We knew this was going to be an issue two years ago, and I think some of our preparation and how we’ve really done that has allowed for us to have constant communication, communication plans, letting them know all the information that’s going on,” he said.

Approximately 83% of UCA’s student body receives some kind of federal aid, Thomas said.

UCA received about 15,000 ISIRs throughout the 2023-2024 academic year and has received about 7,500 so far for the upcoming year.

Thomas said UCA has not yet awarded financial aid packages to students, but hope to be able to do so in the next few weeks.

“It’s been an interesting challenge and I think one that has for sure impacted students and their families feeling informed about their financial situations going into their college decision,” he said. “And I think that’s really unfortunate for a form that was supposed to make things a little easier for all involved.”

Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said her office has been “hesitant to send out financial aid notifications until we’re really sure all the information that we have is accurate and that the aid that we are offering students is appropriate.”

The U of A typically receives between 18,000 and 20,000 ISIRs by this time of year, according to officials. The university has received about 15,400 ISIRs this year and 30% of them have been identified as having issues. McCray said federal officials have said they’re working as fast as possible to update the information.

“I think they know what’s at risk here, what’s at stake,” she said.

Many students are waiting to learn how much aid they’ll receive before registering for classes, and McCray said she’s concerned the continued FAFSA-related delays will result in students deferring for a year.

May 1 is often decision day, the deadline for incoming freshmen to select a school to attend, but some colleges have rescheduled to May 15, McCray said. The U of A moved its decision day to May 8, but McCray said the school will work with students on a case-by-case basis to give them the time they need “to make a good decision about their four-year future on a college campus.”

McCray described this year’s situation as “unprecedented” and said whenever you try to change a system this big, “implementation is always the trick.”

“FAFSA is a massive application process and distribution of aid process and so when anything like that changes in a big way, there’s no surprise there are hiccups and certainly we’re experiencing that,” she said. “If it weren’t for the fact that students were involved and trying to plan their lives, we wouldn’t worry so much.”

McCray called this a building year and expressed confidence that FAFSA will be easier in the future. In the meantime, she encouraged students who haven’t done so to apply for college and financial aid and promised to work with students whom the U of A will admit through August.

“I’d certainly encourage students if you haven’t applied for the FAFSA, do it,” she said. “They are working out the bugs, things are working, so go ahead and get it in. It’s not too late.”

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.