Colleges postpone commitment deadline in light of FAFSA delays

FAFSA logo
Courtesy of Access Wealth / FAFSA

Due to delays in this year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), Lewis & Clark’s administration announced their decision to extend the deadline for enrollment on Feb. 1. Federal government setbacks in processing the FAFSA led LC to push back the traditional commitment date from May 1 to June 1. 

LC was one of the first colleges in a wider movement to delay the enrollment deadline for 2024.  Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Eric Staab provided insight into this choice. 

“My staff and I have a lot of years of experience doing admissions, so it was clear to us. We thought it would be wise for us to get ahead of this and make the announcement on February 1 that we were going to go ahead and extend the reply deadline to June 1,” he said.

Due to challenges in rolling out the new FAFSA after a redesign with fewer questions and new methodology, the federal government pushed back the date when applications would open. 

“Normally, the FAFSA is available as of October the first, and we would have been admitting students and offering both merit and need based aid as early as November,” Staab said. “But with the delay of the launch of the new FAFSA, which happened on the very last day of December, it was clear that the federal government was challenged with getting this off the ground.”

Continued issues with processing student information gave the LC administration an unstable outlook on when financial aid data would be available. 

“The federal government in December started saying, ‘Well, even if we’re going to make the form now, finally accessible to students and families to fill out, we still haven’t figured out how to deliver the data to the colleges.’ At that point in December, they say that it’ll come by late January. At the very end of January, they said, ‘Well, now we’re wrong, it’s now going to look like mid-March.’ So here, they’ve already stumbled three times,” said Staab. “I was not very trusting of the federal government actually getting around to launching their data to us by mid-March.”

Colleges must process the data they receive from the federal government before sending out award letters, which means that prospective students are receiving their financial aid packages later than ever.

“Once (the data) started coming by mid-March, it would take us, or any other college for that matter, several weeks to download the data, process the data, prove the data, print the data and then send the award letters to students,” Staab said. “So knowing that was already going to be several weeks, we were thinking that in the best case scenario, the first week of April would be when we would get need based aid award letters out. It was clear to me that it was just too tight of a time period for families.” 

Advocates for pushing back the college enrollment deadline for 2024 argue that delays in financial aid packages could be harmful to low-income families. 

According to Staab, the federal government reported errors in their data mid-March, which further complicated the financial aid process.

“Yes, they did start releasing data on the 15th of March,” he said. “But it took them two weeks to deliver all of the data. So, just the other day, we finally got all of the FAFSAs delivered to us. Then they started announcing, not just recently but other dates earlier, of all of the errors that they were making in calculating the family’s financial needs.”

Staab cites his concern for the impact of delayed aid packages on incoming students as the motivation for his decision.

“I’m anticipating at the earliest, we’ll be able to get out need-based aid award letters now that we know all that we know is going to be April 19. That’s 12 days for a family to get their financial aid package from us and then make a decision. I didn’t want families to feel pressured,” he said.

Colleges who do not extend the application deadline may end up turning away families who rely on financial aid.

“By not changing the application deadline, it’s putting those colleges or schools under pressure. Case in point, we’ll have it down the street (at Willamette), they have not changed their application deadline,” Staab said, “and we have been hearing from families who have had interactions with them, who are very turned off by the fact that Willamette has not extended their reply deadline.”  

Staab critiqued the decisions of some colleges and universities to retain the traditional May 1 deadline. 

“What I’m also fearing is going to happen is that schools are going to stick to their May 1 deadline, because they know that there will be some more affluent families who are not asking for need-based aid. And all the other families who do have financial needs need to wait until they get their financial aid packages. They’re the ones who are going to be disadvantaged and put under more pressure,” he said. 

By delaying the application deadline, LC administration hopes to relieve pressure on low-income families.

 “It’s unfair, especially for the families who are from lower income backgrounds, that they’re going to be squeezed by the schools that are not, at the moment, saying that they’re going to be flexible with a deadline. They’re just waiting for students to come forward and say, ‘Oh, please give me an extension,’ which puts the onus on the student, as opposed to the college coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, I see the problem. I see it’s coming down the road. Why don’t we make the extension now?’” Staab said.

Though financial aid processing may have a lower impact on the yield of large public universities, private colleges like LC may be more impacted due to a higher tuition cost.

“With us, they’re gonna say ‘You’re starting sticker price is $75,000. I don’t think we can afford that.’ So we do run a risk of not yielding that student. The only way that we can get ahead of that is getting the best aid award letters out,” he said. 

Staab noted that the government errors in financial aid processing also impact returning students.

“We’re talking about not only the prospective students who are applying for admission now right now, but we’re also talking about returning students,” said Staab. “We’re talking about law students, we’re talking about grad students, current and prospective students. So it’s a big problem right now.”

LC administration hopes to get financial aid letters out by mid-April.

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