After one of the most chaotic application seasons ever, millions of students and their families are now picking colleges without knowing how much it will actually cost.

In a normal year, universities send out financial aid offers shortly after acceptance letters are released. But after several delays associated with the revamp of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, millions of families are preparing to make a financial commitment without key information at a time when the cost of college has never been higher.

That’s the case for Ayush Natarajan, a high school senior from southern California, who wants to study neuroscience and is primarily deciding between the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.

For him, financial aid will be the “tie breaker,” with the sticker price of USC at about $95,000 a year compared with UCLA’s in-state tuition of about $42,000. But he has yet to receive any financial aid information.

“You put all the work in applying to these schools and you fill out the essays, you take the tests, you get the grades and you submit your application expecting that you’ll receive a decision,” said Natarajan. “And with the whole FAFSA delays, I think fundamentally you’re not receiving a complete decision. You’re receiving an acceptance or rejection or waitlist but you’re not receiving that peace of mind that will allow you to commit to one of those schools.”

Big Overhaul
Under the FAFSA Simplification Act, passed in December 2020, the federal aid application underwent one of the biggest overhauls in decades with the goal of simplifying the process and increasing access to aid for low income families. But a botched rollout — in which the Department of Education was unable to get forms to college financial aid offices in a timely manner — has made the process even more stressful for many students and their families this year.

Universities only started to receive completed forms from the Department of Education in mid-March, and now some institutions including the University of California system and Amherst College are pushing their decision deadlines back from the usual May 1 date. Still, a majority of elite private institutions have not budged on their deadlines, meaning students likely won’t have a full financial picture when making their college decision.

Earlier this week, the Department of Education said it had processed nearly all of the roughly 6.6 million FAFSA forms it had received this year. In a typical year, schools would have started receiving the forms in October, said Karen McCarthy, a vice president at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She said the concern now is that schools have much less time to evaluate FAFSA forms, and that students will have aid offers from some colleges but not others when decision deadlines arrive.

“We want students to be able to make a fully informed decision,” said McCarthy. “We fear that ultimately it will disproportionately impact middle- to low-income students who need that information to make a decision. Those students in particular are really in limbo.”

Widening Inequality
The impact of the FAFSA delays will be felt the most at institutions that rely solely on federal aid. Institutions with large endowments such as Stanford University and Brown University, which use the CSS profile, an additional online application to award non-federal institutional aid, are finding workarounds.

Students who applied to Stanford, for instance, received financial aid offers using solely institutional funds, said Karen Cooper, the school’s director for financial aid. Then, once the university evaluates its FAFSA forms, it will replace some of the scholarship funds with federal aid — but the total net cost for students will remain the same. As a result, Stanford has not moved their decision date back from May 1.

“It’s been shocking that it has been this much work and it has taken this long,” Cooper said. “We assumed we would start getting FAFSA shortly after they started receiving applications in January. And so that’s been a real struggle.”

FAFSA’s online application, which typically opens in October, was supposed to go live in December for those applying for aid in the 2024-2025 academic year. But when it launched, users reported crashes and getting randomly logged out, causing information to get lost. It wasn’t until January that the application was available online 24/7.

For Alex Lumala, a high school senior from Scottsdale, Arizona, who will be the first in his family to attend college, the application process was already confusing before the FAFSA delays. Now, he’s concerned he’ll make the wrong choice without knowing the full financial picture of his options.

He’d prefer to study computer science at one of the more elite universities he’s been accepted to: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Purdue University and Georgia Institute of Technology. But since he hasn’t received his financial aid packages yet, he thinks he’ll most likely attend Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College, where he received a full tuition scholarship.

“Overall I’m just very frustrated with the Department of Education’s performance with FAFSA and how these delays affect first generation and low-income students the most, the exact group this FAFSA overhaul was supposed to benefit,” said Lumala. “I know that ASU will be the most affordable, but I wanted more.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.