In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans united in expressing frustration during a Wednesday hearing about the Department of Education’s credibility crisis over its mishandling of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms.

Decision day is less than a month away for would-be college students, and many students who filled out the FAFSA still don’t know if they can afford to attend university.

“Some students cannot complete the form at all,” said Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, at the hearing. “Unfortunately, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Department of Education planned to launch new FAFSA forms after Congress passed the bipartisan FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020 to make it easier to fill out the paperwork, which unlocks tens of billions in aid for eligible students.

But the rollout, originally expected in October 2023, was pushed back to December the same year. But even after the new forms were finally rolled out, families continued to face technical issues related to uploading, accessing and correcting mistakes on their forms.

Colleges and universities were also late in receiving students’ Institutional Student Information Record, which determines the amount of aid an applicant is eligible for. In early March, when the federal agency finally began sending this pertinent information, the data was riddled with calculation errors, impacting about 200,000 students, who already received their inflated financial aid packages.

In Utah, 13,523 forms have been submitted this year, a nearly 20% decrease from last year, according to the National College Attainment Network’s data. Nationally, this year’s submissions are more than 27% lower compared to the previous academic year.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office launched an investigation into the Education Department’s mishandling of the FAFSA rollout.

Related
FAFSA debacle leaves college students in financial limbo

FAFSA: What went wrong?

Owens, who represents Utah’s 4th District, told the Deseret News the congressional hearing was productive. “FAFSA has been around for 32 years. Many of us have gone through that, many of us have had our kids go through that,” he said of his colleagues. “So there’s a sense of empathy.”

During the hearing, he said the series of delays and errors aren’t victimless crimes, noting the anxiety and frustration students, families, education institutions and states feel because of the federal department’s failures.

Directing his first question to Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Owens asked why the Education Department “continues to downplay the problems with FAFSA” despite concerns from advocacy groups and experts.

Draeger said he, too, raised his worries about FAFSA missing deadlines early on and working without a roadmap in place. He urged the committee to tap into Congress’ oversight function to attain answers from the Education Department, which faces a “crisis of credibility.”

Owens later told the Deseret News his committee plans to question Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who recently wrote a letter to governors encouraging them to ask schools to postpone financial aid decisions, as well as Federal Student Aid CEO Richard Cordray. The Utah congressman pointed to Cordray’s lack of experience for the job, considering his former employment as the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Draegar said his organization of financial aid professionals conducted a poll in recent weeks and found “a good number of institutions who are unsure whether they will be able to ... send aid offers before May 1, which is the traditional date by which schools ask students to decide where they’ll be attending.”

“A lot of schools have already pushed that date back,” he said.

Mark Kantrowitz, president of Cerebly, a consulting company for web page design, student financial aid, Artificial Intelligence, and other technical fields, said the agency’s “overly sunny responses” didn’t acknowledge the deeply problematic issues. He compared responses akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Kantrowitz, who was responsible for developing the first online FAFSA forms in 1996, pointed to the Education Department’s latest announcement, where they said they will start reprocessing the 20% of incorrect records by May 1. He said he has recommended that schools push the decision day to June 1.

Low income students most hurt by FAFSA delay

Owens asked Rachelle Fieldman, vice provost of enrollment at the University of North Carolina, about the kinds of students most hurt by the Education Department’s mismanagement.

She said low income students who need to know whether they can afford school are more affected. “I worry most honestly about a student in say, rural North Carolina who’s heard all their life that college is out of their reach,” said Fieldman. “We can’t get them the document that proves they can and we lose out on that talent.”

During his interview, Owens said the Biden administration, including Cordray, has prioritized student loan forgiveness month after month. The latest plan, unveiled Monday, is set to help 30 million borrowers with their student debt. To date, the White House has approved $146 billion in student debt payouts.

Meanwhile, college enrollment is down and smaller institutes are the ones likely to bear the brunt of this loss, he said. The Republican congressman acknowledged Utah universities like Brigham Young University and the University of Utah “are solid and established” and will be able to withstand this turbulence. Still, vocational and trade schools as well as technical institutions will be most hurt. “They don’t know what the next day’s going come down to,” he added.

In the past, Owens has championed technical training over typical four-year universities. Higher education is “a very costly process, so we’re now looking at how do we make sure that every child that comes out is pursuing their dream.”

Out of all demographics, it’s the first-generation low to moderate-income families that need a helping hand the most, he said, before posing a question: “What exactly is the Department of Education for?”

“They are supposed to give us the most solid, intelligent and competitive kids in the world,” Owens said. “They’re supposed to make sure those who are born poor don’t stay poor because they can raise themselves through the system. They’re failing. The billions of dollars we give them to give loans, they can’t even get that out.”