Brandon High senior Destiny Obioha spent weeks on the phone with federal student aid representatives in March after her mother was locked out of the new online aid form. [ IAN HODGSON | Times ]

Destiny Obioha sat in class at Brandon High for weeksstaring at her cell, a headphone in one ear, waiting for someone to answer her call. Instead of eating lunch with friends, she’d head to the library and start dialing.

Sometimes a representative from federal student aid would pick up, only to place her back on hold once she explained the situation. Her mother was locked out of the new federal aid application and wasn’t able to enter the tax information Obioha needed to complete it. Other times the call would simply drop.

Obioha, 18, watched TikTok videos looking for someone with the same issue.

Even after she managed to unlock her mother’s account, she still doesn’t know exactly how much she’ll have to pay for school — with less than two months before her first summer term at Florida International University.

More than 50,000 Florida high school seniors have played the same tense waiting game as the federal form’s botched rollout continues. As of late April, federal aid applications remain down about a thirdfrom last year, according to aTampa Bay Times analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.

But that number doesn’t tell the whole story.

Thousands of applications contained errors that made it impossible for university administrators to make aid offers to prospective students. Thousands more were rejected due to missing or conflicting information, leaving students scrambling to revise applications in time for impending enrollment deadlines.

The combination of lagging submissions, rejected applications and miscalculated results means that completed, usable applications are down by at least 35% in Florida compared to last year, a Times analysis found.

Multiple errors

During a congressional hearing last month, Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said roughly 1 in 5 federal aid applications were miscalculated by the Education Department. Another 1 in 5 are missing information necessary to calculate school financial aid.

That’s 40% of applications that were “dead in the water” just weeks before students were to make their enrollment decisions for the fall, he told members of the House education and workforce committee.

His numbers line up with what administrators have seen at the University of South Florida, where more than a third of applications are unusable, said Billie Jo Hamilton, associate vice president of student enrollment.

About half of those were rife with errors and miscalculations in the federal formula used to determine financial need, Hamilton said.

The University of South Florida is among a handful of state schools that have pushed their enrollment deadline to May 15 after problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. More than a third of financial aid applications to the school are unusable because of errors, delays and other problems.
The University of South Florida is among a handful of state schools that have pushed their enrollment deadline to May 15 after problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. More than a third of financial aid applications to the school are unusable because of errors, delays and other problems. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2022) ]

Since its rollout, the application, known as the FAFSA, has been plagued by bugs and outdated data, which the Department of Education has often been slow to address.

In December, student aid expert Mark Kantrowitz highlighted how the department failed to account for three years of inflation. He estimated the failure would cost the average family about$1,600 in aid.

After declining to make the roughly 18% inflation adjustment, the department announced in mid-January that it would recalculate student financial need estimates, delaying the delivery of financial data by up to six weeks.

In March, federal education officials announced another error in the funding formula. Their model omitted some student assets from consideration and erroneously inflated financial need for more than 200,000 students nationally.

The department began returning reprocessed applications to university administrators on April 29, James Kvaal, the U.S. undersecretary of education,said last week.

That was just days before many schools, including the University of North Florida and Florida Polytechnic University, require students to lock in their enrollment decision for the fall.

“How do you end up with a system where 20% of students have a mistake in their formula?” Kantrowitz said. “The fact that this problem wasn’t noticed suggests to me that they had no testing system in place.”

Instead, it’s been up to students and university aid administrators to check the department’s calculations and flag errors. Many of the mistakes were first identified by students and school administrators, who found discrepancies in the government’s math, Kantrowitz said.

The constant delays and buggy data have placed an unprecedented demand on school financial aid workers, said Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Normally administrators would have their federal aid applications in good shape by mid-October, Desjean said.

“Staff are being asked to squeeze six months of work into just a few weeks,” she said. “That’s never happened before.”

Richard A. Cordray will step down as head of federal student aid.
Richard A. Cordray will step down as head of federal student aid. [ JOHN MINCHILLO | AP ]

In January, a group of Republican lawmakers called for an investigation into the application’s rocky rollout and whether the Education Department did enough to support students and school administrators.

Last week, the Biden administration’s top student aid official, Richard A. Cordray, announced that he will step down in June as a result of the mismanaged launch.

A flawed design

This year’s application creates the potential for a maze of missteps that could lead to a rejected application, said Desjean, the policy analyst.

At Florida State University, 1 in 5 applications were rejected due to missing or incorrect information, said spokesperson Amy Patronis. That’s on top of the 50% drop in applications the university received at this point last year.

Statewide, the share of uncompleted applications has nearly doubled. Every year, roughly 7% of students who submitted an application never correct their rejected application. As of late April, more than 7,000 students still have unresolved errors in their applications — representing roughly 13% of submissions, according to the Times’ analysis of federal data.

There are a number of reasons why an application might be rejected. Tax information pulled from the IRS might not add up, a question about citizenship or marital status might have been left blank.

One of the most common errors this year is a missing signature, Desjean said. If a parent or student signed the form and then closed the application to come back to it later, their signature was deleted and they were not prompted to re-sign before submitting, according to the department’s database of issues.

Desjean said she’s also concerned about the higher number of students checking a box opting out of financial aid. It’s a rarely used option designed for students whose parents are unwilling to submit their portion of the application, she said.

“That suggests to me the question was poorly written,” Desjean said. “Students made mistakes because of department mistakes. If the form was designed better, we wouldn’t be seeing this.”

Students were informed via email that their application was rejected, sometimes within days of submitting, according to the agency.

In prior years, mistakes were easily fixable. The new federal aid portal, however, locked students and families out of their application once it was submitted. The department didn’t change the application page to allow revisions until late April.

The Department of Education has processed about 1 million corrections, said Kvaal, the undersecretary, but a worrying number of forms are still incomplete. He encouraged students who have not yet applied for federal aid to do so immediately, adding that turnaround times are between one and three days.

Senior department officials announced Tuesday that students from mixed-status families — where at least one parent does not have legal permanent residency — could submit an application using manually entered tax information. The fix addresses a complaint raised within weeks of the application’s launch in January.

A handful of Florida universities — including USF, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida — have pushed their enrollment deadline to May 15.

Florida State University moved its deadline to June 1, said spokesperson Anna Prentiss. The school aims to send financial awards by this week.

But that may be too soon for many families, said Kantrowitz, the student advocate.

“Some students likely won’t even have offers by May 1,” he said. “They won’t have time to make decisions or appeal their decision. It isn’t realistic.”

Obioha, the Brandon High student, finally got her financial aid estimate in late March. It was less than she’d anticipated. She wondered — could she be one of the thousands of students whose applications were miscalculated? It’s unlikely that she’ll have time to appeal the number before she starts college.

In the remaining weeks of her senior year, Obioha will balance studying for finals with applying for every scholarship she can find, assisted by Brandon High’s new college and career center.

She’s hoping to cover enough of her tuition and living expenses to avoid taking on any student debt.

Was the anxiety worth it?

“Of course,” she responded sternly. “The value of independence is immeasurable.”

Plus, she added, she already Zoomed with her future roommates and they seem pretty cool.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.