Community college concerns over FAFSA flap


The U.S. Education Department’s (ED) delayed and glitch-plagued rollout of a new FAFSA form and process is having severe repercussions for four-year institutions, but some community college leaders say they, too, are facing significant FAFSA-related financial aid application, processing and student aid award delays that could adversely affect enrollment at their institutions for this summer and the fall.

Had financial aid applications for academic year 2024-25 been processed as for past years at Central Community College (CCC) in Nebraska, for example, FAFSAs for a large contingent of potential fall students would have been submitted and processed, ED’s Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) with federal student aid information would have been processed and loaded, and after CCC software checks, data verifications, and analysis of student eligibility and available aid, CCC financial aid packages would have been shared with applicants by the end of 2023, giving students months to decide whether to attend before the start of the fall semester in August, says Becca Dobry, CCC’s area-wide director of financial aid.

That is not the case for the 2024-25 academic year, Dobry says. As of an interview with her in late April, the college didn’t “even have any financial aid offers out on the street,” she says.

Instead, Dobry says due to concerns about errors and the accuracy of the ISIRs – for those she reviewed, there was a 40% error rate in received ISIRs, four times that for the preceding year –  she held off processing ISIRs until late April and will only start awarding financial aid packages in early May.

Eyeing potential enrollment drops

Several community college leaders interviewed said they will have to scramble during late spring and summer to make up for lost time to prepare financial aid packages, adding that while the full extent of the impact upon ultimate enrollment in the 2024-25 academic year is not yet clear, there is a definite danger of significant enrollment declines.

“When we’re in high schools, we’re finding that students are just flat out deciding not to do their FAFSA form right now because they’ve heard it was more complicated and that they weren’t able to do things, which will impact our enrollment in the long run,” says Shanda Byer, vice president of student services at Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) in Springfield, Illinois.

“Many of our students are first-generation college students and many rely on a Pell Grant or scholarship to afford college,” says Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega, who serves on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors. “So when there’s any confusion, as there has been with the FAFSA application process, for many of them it will affect their decision to attend college. I believe these delays may have an impact on college-going rates.”

Untangling the mess

ED brass, especially Secretary Miguel Cardona, have been hammered about the FAFSA fiasco at recent congressional hearings, where the secretary last week and this week detailed the steps ED has taken to help families, students and colleges through the process with activities such as regular updates, technical assistance and FAFSA seminars, to name a few.

LLCC President Charlotte Warren, who also serves on the AACC board of directors, says that there is some indication that ED communications are improving, such as a recent department letter that gave an overview of where ED stood in addressing various issues, which she says will allow LLCC to better inform students and parents who rely on LLCC as their best source of financial aid information. 

Still, the “damage” to summer and fall enrollments may have been done. Overall, FAFSA completions are down 36% nationally compared to the same time last year, according to data released at a Senate hearing last week. LLCC’s Warren says that at her college, “the data from the beginning of April showed that we were down, ranging from 11% to 60%, in our district high schools for students filling out the FAFSA compared to the same time in the previous year.”

Some wiggle room, but…

Community colleges, which generally offer open admissions until classes start, have been relatively less impacted by the FAFSA delays than four-year institutions, many of which have annual “college decision day” deadlines of May 1 for students to commit to institutions for fall enrollment. To do so, many must have received earlier financial aid packages.

That gives many community colleges some margin to wait to prepare financial aid packages.

Given reports of inaccurate ISIR forms, many community colleges have held off processing ISIRs and preparing financial aid packages to avoid using inaccurate data or forcing students and prospective students to address glitches.

Several community college leaders think they can make up for the lost time.

“I would say overall we’re not that far behind given we don’t have a commitment date due to rolling enrollment,” says Amy Cable, chief student affairs officer at the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “So even if I don’t have my enrollment where I need it to be today, I have three more months before classes so that I can really ramp up my enrollment activity.”

Still, there are potential issues that concern two-year college officials. For example, even when they are confident that ISIR data is more accurate, community colleges will require some time, likely weeks, for their IT providers, whether in-house or outsourced, to adjust and properly process the data and perform quality assurance and testing given the numerous changes to the ISIR output information that reflects a new methodology from past years, says Warren.

There are also unknowns as to how certain data will be processed. One question for LLCC is how the ISIRs using the revised methodology will interpret family farm data, which is a major issue for LLCC-bound students who may come from families with farms which could reduce their aid eligibility, Warren says.

Summer slam

There is far less of a margin for those community colleges that are “summer header” institutions that start their 2024-25 academic year in the preceding summer.  That is the case for five Louisiana community and technical colleges, Cable says. These institutions are scrambling to prepare financial aid packages for students who will start this summer.

“For those colleges, we’re just trying to figure out how to help these students; usually we would have everything in place for them by now,” Cable says. “So we’re working through that with our chancellor and the financial aid directors on some options, such as changing our billing deadlines, more outreach, going into financial aid applications and getting a sense of eligibility, examining if we can we waive something or hold their classes until they can pay.”

For summer header institutions, some are moving financial aid deadlines back. To allow for slightly more time, LLCC, a header school, has moved its tuition due date deadline back a week from May 15 to May 22, says LLCC’s Byer.

Cascading effect

While FAFSA completion is mandatory for federal financial aid, many states and other types of scholarships also rely on the FAFSA information and subsequent determinations to help decide state aid, which is the case in Illinois, says LLCC’s Warren.

“The majority of our students receive some sort of aid to go to school, and students need to know what their packages are to be able to attend college at all,” she says. “FAFSA is the lynchpin for many of them because it’s the door to federal aid. It’s the door for MAP grants, it’s the door for scholarships, it’s the door for everything. So without it, they can’t come.”

The delay is shifting financial aid application processing and offers into graduation months that are among the busiest for community college staff. And soon high school students will graduate and, in many cases, will have reduced and/or less convenient access to high school staff, classmates or community college staff helping them fill out the FAFSA form, Warren notes.

Options moving forward

The colleges interviewed said they are now moving forward with intaking ISIRs and preparing financial aid forms.

“So we’ve started now bringing in the ISIRs and are testing our system. We should be able to package and have awards out for students mid-May,” Warren says. “I think for our financial aid department, it’s really just the unknown right now. We believe that the ISIRs that we are getting should be able to be packaged and awarded to students, but we don’t know that. We’ve had three rounds now of finding out that there’s some sort of miscalculation in the system.”

Some said there is also the hope that many students will apply for enrollment without financial aid in place and address that later. 

“We’ll have a huge enrollment crush in July and August. And by the end, our financial aid, we hope is up and running,” Cable says.

About the Author

David Tobenkin
David Tobenkin is a freelance journalist in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
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