Education Department Scrambles to Make Up for Lost Time After FAFSA Blunders

Education Department Scrambles to Make Up for Lost Time After FAFSA Blunders

The Education Department is trying to make up for lost time after applications for federal financial aid plunged this year, with millions of students navigating delays and glitches caused by the disastrous rollout of the new application form.

James Kvaal, the under secretary of education, told reporters on Tuesday that the department had fixed many of the problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. That includes a major glitch that affected students who could not provide a Social Security number.

But Mr. Kvaal said that, by its latest count, the department had received just over 8.4 million submissions so far this year — far fewer than the roughly 17 million it processes in normal years. According to the department’s website, the deadline to apply is June 30.

“It’s been a challenging year for the FAFSA,” he said. “But I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in recent weeks.”

Education Department officials said they were enlisting help from nonprofit groups and activists to encourage more students to fill out the FAFSA form — or to finish the applications that they started but never submitted.

The department began rolling out the new FAFSA form in January — months behind schedule — with the goal of making it easier and more accessible. But students instead encountered a bureaucratic maze caused by delays in launching the website and processing critical information.

The problems left millions of high school seniors unable to figure out how much money they could expect to help pay for college.

During a hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona faced anger from lawmakers about how the rollout could harm students’ futures.

Mr. Cardona testified that while the form had been “riddled with delays and challenges,” the department expected it to be in working order for students applying for next year. The application traditionally opens on Oct. 1.

Even before the process was derailed this year, poor outreach and disparities between richer and poorer school districts were a major obstacle to access.

Many students who are eligible for federal aid do not apply for it, and many states also use the financial calculations made through FAFSA to award grants and scholarships at the state level.

Mr. Cardona has stressed that one of the goals of simplifying the form was to reduce the burden of navigating a lengthy, confusing application on families that may learn about the availability of federal aid late in the process.

“One of the things that we don’t really talk about a lot is that, across our country, we’ve normalized a 60 percent completion, 70 percent completion of FAFSA,” Mr. Cardona told lawmakers on Tuesday. “It is our expectation as we work together to get those numbers closer to 90, 95 percent of students filling it out.”

While Mr. Cardona acknowledged the department’s missteps and promised that the form would be easier to use and would unlock more aid for students than was available in the past, Republicans expressed dismay about the department’s budget request for next year given its handling of FAFSA.

“It seems like the only solution we ever hear is, ‘Well I need more money for staff,’” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. “Well this could have been done a lot better — what you said today, we should have been hearing that a year ago so we could be prepared for where we are.”

Last week, the head of the department’s federal student aid office, Richard Cordray, announced he would step down at the end of his term in June amid intense scrutiny into his handling of the FAFSA rollout.

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