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The FAFSA rollout left many students in limbo. Some colleges feel the effects, too

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We are far past the traditional college decision deadline of May 1, but some students still haven't committed to their future schools, and that's leaving some colleges and universities in a bind. This is all because delays and tech issues with the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, have left students waiting on financial aid packages.

Eric Hoover is a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he's been covering the FAFSA ordeal. He says the cascade of problems with the form began last fall, and there are still some applicants experiencing technical issues.

ERIC HOOVER: It's a whole lot of students. It includes low-income first-generation students. In many cases, it includes students who are U.S.-born but have one or more parents who are undocumented.

It also includes a huge swath of broadly defined middle-income students who have encountered problems with the FAFSA and who, in some cases, had to wait and wait and wait to get one aid offer or to get aid offers from all the colleges they were waiting to hear from so that they could sit down at the kitchen table with mom and dad and try to make an apples-to-apples comparison of their aid offers.

PFEIFFER: For some students, is it not just a question of how much money they're - they will get but whether they'll be able to go to college at all?

HOOVER: Yes, absolutely. The FAFSA is a key that unlocks college for so many American families and without the federal aid - in many cases, without every last dollar that they will hope to receive - they're not going to be able to attend perhaps the college they most wanted to attend but, in some cases, any college at all.

PFEIFFER: So this is obviously affecting students. I understand that some colleges are nervous about having possibly lower numbers of students for the next year, and maybe the dollars and the finances won't work out the way they want. What's the concern on the enrollment front?

HOOVER: Yeah, great concern on the enrollment front, particularly at the many, many relatively small colleges that do not have gigantic endowments, as well as regional public institutions throughout the country. I've been in touch with some college presidents and enrollment leaders who tell me that they're worried that when everything shakes out and the fall semester begins - that they are going to have 5- or 7- or 15% fewer first-year students than they did last year.

They're concerned about that on a human level, but they're also concerned about the impact of that shortfall on the bottom line. And in some cases, you know, the downstream effect of that enrollment shortfall could be budget cuts that really hurt, could be pay or hiring freezes and perhaps, you know, the worst kind of cuts that any college could make, which is to cut jobs.

PFEIFFER: Explain a little more why this affects college finances. How does the FAFSA aid fit into how colleges do their own financial planning?

HOOVER: Right, so if the FAFSA is the key that is going to unlock college for a given student, and without that federal aid, they really don't have the means to afford going to college X, well, then they can't enroll, and that's an empty seat on a college campus. And most colleges do not have the resources to fill the missing federal aid that so many students have right now with an incomplete FAFSA. So...

PFEIFFER: So those empty seats are lost revenue.

HOOVER: And an empty seat is a lost revenue. An empty bed or an empty - you know, a quad that's - has fewer students in it is also a bottom line that looks less healthy than it might otherwise.

PFEIFFER: What are you hearing from the colleges and university officials you talk to about what they need to solve this problem?

HOOVER: They want the glitches and technical errors that are continuing to foul them up - they want them fixed. They want to hear that students who still can't get through and complete the federal aid form are not being ignored and that - if there need to be more workarounds that enable the FAFSA saga of 2024 to subside, it needs to happen now. We're a few weeks away from the Fourth of July. They just want these problems fixed.

PFEIFFER: That's Eric Hoover, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thank you for all these details.

HOOVER: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN CASEY AND HENRY ARCHER'S "SLAKE MOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
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Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.