The information that colleges and universities need to prepare financial aid offers for the millions of students who want to attend those institutions started to arrive at the campuses two weeks ago – about three months behind schedule.

The reasons for the delay include the shaky launch of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in late December and the related glitches that the U.S. Department of Education has developed fixes for on the fly. An expert said students could begin to receive their aid information by mid-April.

The U.S. Department of Education started to process about 1.5 million of the 6 million submitted financial aid forms the week of March 11. Once the campuses have received enough of those forms, they will test their systems to create a model for their financial aid packages.

Each delay means that institutions have less time to develop the financial aid packages, and students will have even less time to consider their academic options. On a positive note, some universities have rolled back their standard May 1 commitment date to accommodate the delays.

“Hopefully that extra time will allow (students) to review their aid offers and decide which institution may be the best for them,” said MorraLee Keller, senior director of Strategic Programming at the National College Attainment Network.

MorraLee Keller

Keller advised students to contact the institutions they listed on their FAFSA to see if they delayed their commitment date. Her bottom-line advice is to fill out the application. NCAN, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports equity and excellence in postsecondary education, reported that FAFSA numbers are down 33% nationally and 37% in Texas.                                                             

“If they haven’t attempted it yet, or if they attempted it a while ago, Federal Student Aid has done a lot of fixes,” Keller said during a phone interview. “We want (students) to come back, be persistent and get their form finished so they can secure some aid for next year.”

Kairi (pronounced ky-REE) Gonzalez, a freshman electrical engineering major at the University of Texas at El Paso, said this year’s application process has left her stressed because she is unsure how she will pay for college in the fall. She submitted her FAFSA in February and received a confirmation email from the DOE.

Gonzalez paid for this year’s tuition and mandatory fees through the university’s Paydirt Promise Program, which helps students with family incomes of $80,000 or less. To pay for additional expenses such as books, a parking permit and transportation, she works at an Eastside movie theater and as a College of Engineering student ambassador.

The student believes that she will get the Paydirt Promise again this fall, but she harbors a “tiny uncertainty” because of the new application process.

“My frustration is with FAFSA,” Gonzalez said.

As of last week, the University of Texas at El Paso had received 6,278 processed financial aid forms.  That is about 25% of what the institution usually has at this time, according to UTEP. Additionally, the rejection rate of those forms is 27%, which is 15% higher than last year.

UTEP, which has a commitment date of May 1, did not respond to questions about its timetable to send students’ financial aid packages, and the main reasons for the rejections.

The DOE usually rejects forms that it deems to have false or unfinished responses such as a misspelled name, incorrect Social Security number, a skipped question or a missing signature.

Ines Lopez, executive director of Student Financial Aid at El Paso Community College, said that as of last week EPCC had not received any numbers, data or rejection records. She added that the college did not have a count of processed FAFSA forms.

Community colleges, which have different admission cycles, expect students to enroll during the summer. About 75% of the college’s students receive financial aid.

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso did not respond to a request for an update on this topic.

The delays have cast a shadow on the new FAFSA, which was created to make the process simpler and quicker, and to expand the eligibility for federal financial assistance, especially among low-income families and English Language Learners.

Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2021 to make it easier for students to tap into $150 billion in college grants, work-study funds and federal student loans. The form has fewer and easier questions, and uses a different formula to determine the amount of aid a student could receive from the government and an institution.

The DOE said that under the new FAFSA, approximately 51,300 more Texans would be eligible for Pell Grants, and about 132,700 Texans would be eligible for the maximum Pell amount. A Pell Grant is federal need-based aid awarded to millions of students annually.

According to the Education Data Initiative,  the maximum Pell Grant is almost $6,900. The EDI also reported in January 2024 that 577,552 Texans were Pell recipients, and the average Pell award was $4,996.

The department noted last week that it had fixed another glitch that led to a miscalculation in the formula that calculated a student’s financial need. That means that the DOE will have to reprocess about 200,000 aid applications that it sent to colleges before March 21. That translates to more postponements.

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, called this the department’s latest unforced error.

“At this stage in the game and after so many delays, every error adds up and will be felt acutely by every student who is counting on need-based financial aid to make their postsecondary dreams a reality,” Draeger said in a prepared statement.

The situation forces students such as UTEP’s Gonzalez to wait a little longer for their financial aid package – and wait – and wait – and wait.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.