‘A crisis of credibility’: Education Department hears bipartisan condemnation on rocky FAFSA rollout

A Wednesday House hearing examining the botched rollout of new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms offered the Department of Education an earful as witnesses and lawmakers from both parties lamented on the “crisis of credibility” the department is facing over the process.

The hearing dug into the months of delays the updated FAFSA launch has caused, including incorrect financial aid information sent out by the agency to colleges.

“Unfortunately, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. New errors are simply revealed every week,” Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development subcommittee, said at the start of the hearing.

The FAFSA issues began when the department rolled out the new forms at the end of December; the process typically starts in October. The first few weeks of the launch saw numerous technical issues for applicants.

From there, the department said colleges would not receive student financial information until March because of additional changes it wanted to make to the formula.

But when March rolled around, incorrect financial data was sent to colleges that could not be processed.

Rachelle Feldman, the vice provost for enrollment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the committee that while the school typically has all its financial aid offers out to accepted applicants by the end of March, the school has “yet to be able to send out a single aid offer because of the poor quality of the data” and the delays in receiving the information.

These difficulties have led advocates, financial aid officers, students, parents and lawmakers to question the credibility of the department.

“Here’s the hard truth, and I don’t take any pleasure in being here to say this today, but when you have a crisis of credibility, schools don’t trust that more errors won’t be found tomorrow, that the data that they have today is credible or that guidance won’t change,” said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Along with the disappointment with the execution, witnesses say the lack of accountability from the department has added to frustration.

Mark Kantrowitz, the president of Cerebly Inc., told the committee the “always sunny responses by the department weren’t really acknowledging the problems that they were experiencing.”

He accused the department of trying to “spin” the FAFSA rollout into “something successful,” comparing it to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The department, which did not have a representative present at the hearing, has previously said that while the challenges now are frustrating, the light at the end of the tunnel is the new FAFSA process will be easier is subsequent years.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently sent out a letter to governors asking them to encourage colleges to move back decision deadlines and push back state financial aid timelines.

“Together, we’ll deliver a Better FAFSA and transform student financial aid for generations to come,” Cardona said.

Some Republicans focused in on the White House announcing other student debt relief efforts amid issues with FAFSA, accusing the administration of trying to create a distraction.

“Is there is there a connection between the botched rollout and erasing student loan debt?” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) asked Kantrowitz.

“I think it’s been perhaps a distraction,” the witness replied. “I don’t know how many of the staff overlap, but it certainly means that they can’t have all hands on deck, focusing on the FAFSA, when some of them are focused on other aspects” of the student loan system.

Democrats focused more on how these delays and complications will affect underserved communities.

“We see this and the alarming decline in FAFSA submissions, particularly among low income and minority students,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

“We certainly heard that excessive requirements block eligible students by making the process just all together too complex to receive aid and failing to resolve these issues has real consequences as I think all of our witnesses have laid out, including students choosing to skip post secondary education or those that take on more student debt when they don’t need to,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said.

Some of the witnesses are looking for the department to receive additional consequences for the botched rollout.

“If there was a financial aid director or even a college president that delayed financial aid on their campus for up to six months, the professional price that would be paid for that would be pretty steep,” Draeger said.

There were mixed thoughts on if this will be the last time students and colleges will have to face issues with the new FAFSA.

Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.) asked all the witnesses what the possibility of FAFSA being launched on time in October for the 2025-2026 school year would be. Three out of the four witnesses said “low.”

“I’m extremely concerned but do have confidence that things will get better,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee.

While she believes the department is working on fixing its mistakes, Wilson is still “extremely concerned about the class of 2024.”

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