The Federal Application for Student Aid

Will the FAFSA fiasco push some schools over the brink?

The Department of Education rolled out a new Federal Student Aid form, but its many glitches have negatively impacted students and colleges alike. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, national higher education reporter for The Washington Post, joins host Krys Boyd to discuss what was supposed to be an easier, more user-friendly FAFSA, how instead it now leaves students questioning if they’ll have funding, and the schools that are unable to tally enrollment dollars. Her article is “‘Very unpredictable’: Colleges fear FAFSA fiasco will hurt enrollment.” 

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    Krys Boyd [00:00:00] There are lots of options for motivated students to brush up their skills and demystify high stakes exams like the SAT and Act. But when it comes to filling out the all important free Application for Federal Student Aid or Fafsa, many students and their parents find the process confusing and time consuming, and every bit as fraught as college entrance exams themselves. For some families, the amount of financial aid offered will determine whether young people can go to college at all. From KERA in Dallas, this is think I’m Kris Boyd. Four years ago, in response to decades of public frustration with the Fafsa process, Congress ordered the Department of Education to make a number of changes, including simplifying the application and clearing the way for more students to qualify for Pell Grants, which don’t have to be paid back. But the rollout of those changes has been slower than expected and plagued with glitches. And now it’s not just students who are stressing out about Aids, but some colleges that count on tuition revenue to keep their doors open. Danielle Douglas Gabriel is national higher education reporter for The Washington Post, where you can find her coverage of the recent changes to Fafsa. Danielle, welcome to think.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:01:12] Thanks for having me.

    Krys Boyd [00:01:13] Just to start, can you explain what the Fafsa is meant to do for college students and for colleges themselves?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:01:22] Certainly. So the fast is really a gateway to the billions of dollars in federal aid, as well as state aid and institutional aid. It allows all of these stakeholders to get a sense of what a family’s ability to actually pay for their education. And oftentimes, it’s most useful for students who really rely on grants and scholarships in order to fund their higher education pursuits.

    Krys Boyd [00:01:46] How did the process work in the past before any changes were required?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:01:50] It was a lengthy process. There were at least 108 questions on the form. Some of them were a bit redundant. Oftentimes they were very confusing, even for families who were well versed with having to navigate college. They could still get tripped up and spend hours trying to fill out the form. And really, that served as the impetus for Congress wanting to shorten the number of questions, change the formula to try to make it more advantageous for more people? Certainly not for everybody, because some of the changes are not as useful for people who have multiple children in college or in who now have to count their family farm on the farm. But for the vast majority of folks, it means more federal Pell Grant money, which is a form of aid that you don’t have to pay back. And that’s been really useful. Or at least it would be useful if a lot of people didn’t have to go through the Byzantine process of filling out the form this year.

    Krys Boyd [00:02:43] Yeah, I mean, I sent four kids to college before any changes, and I and I can attest to the fact that it’s it was complicated and, it was a little bit scary for fear that you were innocently making a mistake that could cost your child’s educational opportunities.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:03:01] Oh, yeah, and that was a common complaint. And I think, you know, finally, members of Congress heeded those concerns and tried to make it a simpler form. And and to be fair, you know, for the folks who this new version of the forum has worked for. I’ve been hearing from a lot of students and families that it is taking them ten minutes to fill it out, whereas in the past, especially for folks who already had kids in school, it was taking them hours if not days. Unfortunately, those stories are not the overwhelming majority of stories I’ve heard from families and students this year. And so this is where we’re having a lot of the problems.

    Krys Boyd [00:03:35] Did the requirements that Congress set out for new forms, new procedures come with the necessary funding to enact them?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:03:44] That’s debatable. You know, certainly the Department of Education said it definitely wasn’t enough money for them to execute all the changes that were needed to make this happen in the amount of time given. Members of Congress question that. And I think a part of it is because there was a disconnect between what the Department of Education believed was necessary to execute what Congress wanted and what members of Congress thought they were asking for. They thought that we’re talking about a couple of formula changes here. Bam, bam, bam. We’re done. The department, however, said, look, we’ve been running this program, this, this application off of a 40 year old system that was still using COBOL, which is a very antiquated coding language that everyone who’s ever participated in the past or any stage said it was more than enough time for us to change it. In fact, I think the Fafsa system was one of the government’s top ten systems that was targeted for a need for change, right by the Government Accountability Office some years back. So that kind of large scale overhaul was going to be labor intensive and very expensive to execute. And it wasn’t necessarily what I think Congress had envisioned. But from the folks who are experts in this, they say that that perhaps what was what is needed in order to really create a system that works best for everyone involved.

    Krys Boyd [00:05:11] So this is one of these age old conflicts between what Congress thinks ought to happen and what an agency thinks can happen or should happen. Ultimately, I guess the authority belongs to Congress to order the Department of Education to make these changes.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:05:25] Indeed, indeed. And I think there there was a bit of a disconnect. And certainly the first year after the law was passed, the department went back to the Congress and said, hey, we need an extension. There’s no way we can get all of this work done. And that’s when I think members of Congress started to get a clearer picture of the work that it entailed in order to make this possible. But still, you know, even if you try to use that very generous understanding of there was a disconnect, it took a lot more time in order to get this done. There were still so many glitches in the form when it finally came out in December, and there has continued to be so many glitches and mishaps. Some of the mishaps have nothing to do with just the technology, but miss deadlines on the department’s part, delays in getting schools, the information, all of these problems that continue to mount to the disadvantage of parents and students.

    Krys Boyd [00:06:23] So what timetable did Congress initially set for remaking Fafsa?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:06:28] The new Fafsa was supposed to roll out in the 20 2324 school year. That didn’t happen, and certainly the department told Congress, maybe about 6 or 7 months after the law passed, that there was no way that we could meet that deadline. And in fact, actually career staff at the department, Ed had asked for two years for an extra two years to get this done because they understood the monumental undertaking that this would be. When things started to really go awry, I think, was that typically the Fafsa comes out in October, and it has for several years to really give students more time to fill it out, to make sure that early decision students can get a clear picture of what they would have to pay when the department said they wouldn’t be able to meet that deadline. I think people at, financial aid offices and colleges started to get really worried, because a shorter time frame would mean less time for them to be able to package aid and get it out to students to compare their options. And that’s exactly what happened.

    Krys Boyd [00:07:31] Why was it that the changes would have the potential to allow more students to qualify for Pell Grants to help fund their education? What was changed there?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:07:41] The income protection allowances. Now this is saying that x amount of the dollars that you as a parent or you as a student earn would be shielded from the formula used to determine how much aid you’re entitled to. Those things change. And these are really important in part because the changes happened at a heightened time for inflation. So you’re suppose the Congress had directed the Department to make those changes in the tables, adjusted for inflation. This was one of the problems that led to the some of the delays that we saw with the Fafsa is that the department neglected to adjust the tables for inflation, and that, I estimated, could have cost students well over $1 million in potential aid. And so when the department made the decision to actually go back and make the adjustment, well, that delayed their ability in sending colleges the information from the Fafsa needed to create packages. But if they didn’t do that, then students would have missed out on a lot of money to help them pay for school.

    Krys Boyd [00:08:42] Yet one other enormous, but probably under-recognized stakeholder here is schools themselves. The colleges we hear the most about that we talk the most about tend to be these wealthy private schools with enormous endowments. They will be okay through a period of turbulence, but there are plenty of smaller institutions that rely heavily on tuition payments just to keep operating, and they are not necessarily well positioned to hold out through this.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:09:09] Certainly. There are lots of regional schools. There are lots of small private liberal arts schools that they really are reliant on tuition dollars. And while a lot of schools made adjustments to their enrollment deposit deadlines, which traditionally was around May 1st for many places, pushed it back to May 15th or June 1st to give students more time to compare the financial aid offers they received. They’re still not quite at their, projected enrollment. And we are in June at the end of June, when at this stage, in any other normal cycle, schools would have had a clear picture of what their fall class would look like. And for many schools, they do not have that picture.

    Krys Boyd [00:09:52] And these are often schools that serve a lot of low income students or large populations of Black and Latino students in particular.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:09:59] Definitely, the students that really need the Fafsa the most because they’re relying on the Pell Grant, which, you know, annually can give more than $7,000 worth of aid. Plus, they’re relying on federal loans, which, again, is determined through the Fafsa and also relying on state aid. You know, lots of states require that students fill out the Fafsa in order to determine their eligibility for state grants. And so you’ve seen states roll back their, deadlines for for that as well. But still, students aren’t getting a complete picture. You know, thankfully, the majority of schools have been able to package aid offers and send them out. But if you’re a student who is waiting to hear from three schools and two out of the three have given you offers, but you’re still holding out for that third, well, you’re kind of stuck. And that’s where a lot of colleges that I’ve spoken with are finding themselves dealing with students who really are waiting to hear from one more school to make an informed decision, and feeling like they are in this paralysis that is not of their own making.

    Krys Boyd [00:11:06] Fewer questions on the application form sounds like a real bonus for families. What kinds of questions was it decided could be eliminated?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:11:14] There are a lot of duplicative questions, and I think the big portion of that is made this a lot simpler is that now the IRS can more easily, hand over all of your tax information, which knocks out a huge percentage of the questions that the old Fafsa had. Now, certainly there was a tool previously that allowed for a lot of that, but it wasn’t as comprehensive as what Congress was able to do through this 2019 law that went into effect in this Fafsa cycle. So that alone has been tremendously helpful for a lot of families, because they don’t have to worry about manually inputting their, financial information is being pulled directly from the source. And that is super helpful for a lot of people.

    Krys Boyd [00:12:02] Yeah. And of course, there are fewer worries about, you know, transposing to digits or something, but it didn’t turn out to work for every family that tried to do this import from the IRS. Right?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:12:13] No, it did not. Unfortunately, a lot of families who are mixed immigration status where the student was born in the U.S., but one or both parents or undocumented and therefore lack of social Security number, they’ve been trapped in this Fafsa cycle. And, you know, typically before this new form came into play, if you were in that, kind of family structure, you would kind of fill out an attestation form, sign off, and say the information that you’re providing is correct. The Department of Education would use that, verify your identity and process it off. This new form made sure that all of that would happen online, and it’ll happen really quickly. And it would be a whole lot simpler. Unfortunately, a lot of parents who did lack Social Security numbers never got an opportunity to even create an ID to contribute any of their information. And even after they got past that component where a fix for that didn’t come until March, they were still having problems verifying their identity. And so I’ve spoken to current students who are still in this process of trying to get through with parents who have, like, Social Security numbers in June. You know, many schools around the country start in August. And so not having any clear sense of will you get enough funding to complete your education or even start your education for many students is really concerning. And we’re not talking about a small population here. On average, you know, up to 2% of filers for the Fafsa are students who are in this mixed immigration status. That could be as many as 300,000 families. And they’ve been trapped in this position for months.

    Krys Boyd [00:13:53] Just to go back to these students in mixed immigration status families. Danielle, that we were talking about, the students in question here, they are legal citizens, right? They’re not supposed to be penalized in any way for whatever their parent’s immigration status might be in terms of their ability to qualify for federal tuition aid.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:14:11] Correct.

    Krys Boyd [00:14:12] Okay. How is the Department of Education trying to address this problem of parents being locked out of Fafsa altogether because they don’t have a Social Security number?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:14:24] There have been several workarounds to try to help this population of families. The last one, which was I think announced at the end of April or early May, perhaps has been most successful in terms of at least from what I’m hearing from a lot of schools, colleges that serve large populations of students from mixed status families. However, it’s not it’s it’s not perfect. Right. And a part of this because the last workaround said that, hey, if your parents can’t, get through the verification process will let your Fafsa go through, and then later on they can try to verify their ID. The problem is they’re still parents running into problems doing that. And so they’re concerned about whether or not, their students will be considered as having completed the Fafsa even though they’ve submitted the form. And then, more importantly, I think, you know, October, which is supposed to be the traditional, rollout of the Fafsa, is right around the corner. And without a permanent solution for this population, we could see many of the same problems, occur in the next Fafsa cycle.

    Krys Boyd [00:15:32] Well, I’m thinking of students and families who are applying for their first year of college now, and they are still sort of tied up in this graduation has come and gone, presumably the kind of help that their high school counselors might have offered is not available to them at the moment.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:15:49] Definitely. I mean, thankfully, there are a lot of organizations that are working to keep those kind of summer hours open and a lot of high schools, the I think admissions and counseling organization, the National one that known as NAC, one of those, places where they’re trying to support high school counselors through this and making sure that they can be accessible to students. A lot of, the college attainment and access groups that work with high schools to, to help students are also working through the summer to make themselves available to families. We’re still seeing a lot of workshops happening on the ground. The Fafsa days are still happening well into the summer to make sure that if families have any questions and they can’t get through to the Department of Education, they at least would have a knowledgeable expert who can walk them through the process.

    Krys Boyd [00:16:36] What effect have these rollout delays and technical glitches had on overall Fafsa completion rates? Just if we look like year over year.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:16:46] They’re down. You know, the the decline has narrowed. Certainly the Department of Education’s efforts to do those workshops to support that kind of activity, to help, high school counselors and these college access groups help students has been successful. But still, I think the last, bit of data I saw is that high school seniors completion of the Fafsa was still down about 14% year over year. And keep in mind, we were still like in the a little over 50% of high school seniors were completing the Fafsa last year. So there was still a lot of runway to go and to. So to see those declines, even if they narrow, is still really disappointing, especially after all of the effort of trying to simplify this form and make it more accessible to more people.

    Krys Boyd [00:17:31] Is there any notable pattern to the kinds of students who seem to not be completing forms at the same rate as before?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:17:38] We are definitely seeing a higher amount of students who are in high schools that have high minority populations. A lot of Black and Latino or Latinx students, are part of of that population. I think there’s more data and research coming out to really drill into that. But certainly from what we’ve seen for the department thus far, high schools that serve those populations are where you’re seeing some of the biggest declines.

    Krys Boyd [00:18:05] How much longer is it taking for students and parents to learn what kind of federal aid might even be available to them to pay for higher education? In the past, at least in my experience, it would just be a couple of days after you got that form submitted electronically.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:18:18] Months, months for us, for a lot of students. I mean, think about it this way. If you were one of those students who said, hey, the form opened at the end of December, I’m going to fill it out in January. Even if you got through a lot of the initial glitches and hiccups and you got it done by January, well, that information that you filled out wasn’t going to get sent to colleges until March. And so there you already have a delay. And then the other problem was that there were a lot of corrections that students need to make. A lot of it not their own fault, but little glitches in the system. Again, that required, you know, a missing signature, for instance, because of some problem with with the form, students weren’t able to make those corrections until April. Typically, all of that work could get done. The moment you submit your Fafsa, you may get an error. Seeing that a flag saying that you need to make a correction and you could do that in a matter of days. Same thing with the information going to schools. That would happen in a matter of days, not months. And and so we’re in this situation where you’re extending the amount of time, student it takes a student to complete the form, and you’re narrowing the window from which the student is able to actually, compare the packages that they receive from various schools to make an educated decision about where to go.

    Krys Boyd [00:19:38] What is summer melt?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:19:41] Summer melt is the idea that students will make the decision that, look, I don’t know if I’m going anymore. I know I’d put down this deposit, but between June and July, I changed my mind. This happens every year, right? It’s not uncommon, but this year is a bit different. If you’re, again, having students who still don’t have a clear picture of where they can afford to go well into the summer, then colleges may not hear back from a lot of the students that they extended admissions to as a result of that.

    Krys Boyd [00:20:15] So students who decide to hold up either, you know, for the last minutes until the last minute for this fall, or maybe deferring to next fall due to financial uncertainty, are they just much more likely to never enroll in college at all.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:20:31] For this population? Definitely for and I say for this population, because financial aid is critical for their ability to go to school, right? There’s no backup there. There’s no, other resources that they can tap in order to make this happen. And while certainly students could turn to the private markets to try to borrow, they could certainly rely on loans. A lot of the students I’m speaking to are really nervous about using that as an option. And so they’re more willing to sit out the semester or even the year rather than do that. And oftentimes, research has shown that when students decide to sit out, they don’t come back.

    Krys Boyd [00:21:10] What are schools doing? Planning for things like housing, which is always complicated. Anyway, if you’re not quite sure yet and you’ve extended enrollment deadlines, are they going to be ready to put students in dorms who move across the country to study?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:21:26] Some of the schools that I spoken with during my reporting have said that they are making kind of projections based on the number of students they’ve admitted and trying to see if they could hold those spaces with the hopes that if they if they are able to get all of those students and hit their enrollment targets, that they will have the space for them. But as as you alluded to, the enrollment deposit, you know, is the first step along towards the housing deposit and all the other kinds of other bits of information that make it not only possible for families to know what the fall is going to look like, but also for the school. And so it does make it a lot more challenging when the schools don’t have a clear sense of who’s going to enroll.

    Krys Boyd [00:22:07] Some completed and accepted forms are being returned to schools and students with the Student Aid index field left blank. Which is to say, if I understand this, no information about how much aid they qualify for. That seems like a major glitch. Do we know why it’s happening?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:22:26] They’re not totally certain what has happened, but the good news is I’m hearing from the department as well as from number of colleges, that it is not happening nearly as much as it was before. And the department is getting down to what’s going on there. So thankfully that’s not as much of a problem as it was. Here is the kicker though. The department had told colleges that at the end of this month they would be able to make any corrections on their side. And now corrections for colleges could be things like professional judgments, right? This is when a financial aid office says, hey, I’ve heard from a family that actually their financial picture, meaning a job loss or some kind of pull on their finances has changed since they filled out the Fafsa and they need more aid. Is there something the school could do? Those sorts of corrections? They’re not actually going to be able to make them until August. Now, this was an announcement that happened last week, and understandably so. Financial aid officers were livid because that is not giving them much time to process any of those corrections to do the necessary work that will help it make it possible for a family who, you know, has suffered some kind of financial mishap to be able to afford college.

    Krys Boyd [00:23:43] So in reporting these stories, you’re talking to people on all sides of this, including students and their families. I’m really curious, Danielle, if a lot of families, once you had them on the phone, wanted your expertise like you are the national higher education for the Washington Post, are they asking you what you think will happen?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:24:04] I have had that happen. Luckily, you know, I’ve met lots of great people who that this is their full time job on the ground trying to help families get through the process. And I’ve certainly directed a lot of families to those groups to try to help walk them through it. I think the thing I’ve taken away from this reporting in the last couple of months is how demoralizing the experiences for a lot of low income students. And what’s really sad about it is that these are students who are doing everything within their power to get into a good school, to afford school, applying to all the scholarships, doing all the things they were told to do. And yet they are still stuck in this, in this, in this system. And that’s why I find that fascinating, is that, you know, there’s been a lot of media coverage lately about people questioning the value of higher education, but you could not tell that from the students that I’m speaking to. They are eager to enroll. They want to be at someone’s campus this fall. And this these problems, these glitches, these hiccups is preventing or at least making it a whole lot harder than anyone had anticipated would be.

    Krys Boyd [00:25:09] So maybe not a huge effect at the Ivy League schools of the world that have endowments, big effect on smaller liberal arts institutions that may be private. What are the particular outlines of this at state universities?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:25:24] I think for your flagships, not as much of a problem, right? Because a lot of them still have pretty sizable endowments that they could probably fill in the gaps here and there. In terms of financial aid, your regionals becomes a little bit more of a problem because they don’t have that same kind of financial wherewithal. Your community colleges, we could certainly see problems there, but even there could kind of go either way in the sense that students who didn’t get enough money or are still waiting to hear back from other schools may think community college would be a good place to at least park themselves for the fall, get the credits that they need, and then see if they can transfer later. But at the same time, you also see a lot of students with deep financial need attending community colleges and enrolling in those smaller regional schools, and they may be completely discouraged from this process. You know, the students who submitted the form but then need to make corrections, that’s asking them to come on back. And that’s not always easy to get them or the students who have done all those things, but still need a school to make a correction. Yeah. You know, you you lengthened the deadline to August for the school’s part. Well, you may lose the student in the process of all of that.

    Krys Boyd [00:26:33] Danielle Douglas Gabriel is national higher education reporter at The Washington Post and has been reporting on challenges with the changes to Fafsa. You’re listening to think. I’m Chris Boyd. Meanwhile, Danielle, some students may have accidentally received offers of aid that were too high. What happened in those cases?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:26:54] Yes. Some of the some more formula issues, that initially happened that kind of gave inflated, projections of what the aid offer would be. Now, here, the schools haven’t have a choice. They could honor that higher aid offer. And the Department of Education says, hey, we’re not going to audit you. We’ll we’ll accept it because we know what’s going on. But a lot of school financial aid officers I’ve spoken with, when faced with that option, they’re like, we’re not going to do that. And I’ll tell you why. Because next year, when that student’s family comes back to us and say, hey, why this huge difference in the amount of money that we qualify for? Well, it it breaks the trust that we have here and it’s not worth it to us. And we think it’s not worth it to the families to give them a false sense of what it really cost to go here.

    Krys Boyd [00:27:42] What do enrollments look like for fall? Will there be thousands, tens of thousands of fewer college students and more anticipated?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:27:51] I mean, we really don’t know yet, and it would be premature to say. But, you know, everyone I’m speaking to at various kinds of universities and I’m talking your Big Ten schools down to your small private liberal arts schools, your rural schools, they’re all kind of holding their breath, waiting to see. And a lot of them are saying, and we don’t know yet. There are a lot of things at play here. We’re also the first year out from the affirmative action ruling. We are also, the first year out where schools are reinstating, some of the standardized testing. All of those things could have an impact on what enrollment looks like this fall. But I think it’s pretty clear that Fafsa will be a major influence in what fall enrollment numbers look like.

    Krys Boyd [00:28:35] And you mentioned Covid. It’s my understanding that schools have just now sort of many schools have just now restored their enrollment numbers to what they were before the pandemic was a factor.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:28:48] Yes. Yes, we this was probably the first year where we saw a solid increase in enrollment coming out of the pandemic. And that was giving schools a lot of hope. And you have to understand it. Schools are also facing the reality of just of what everyone calls the demographic cliff, that there are simply not enough high school seniors graduating in the next several years to fill all of the seats of higher education across this country. Some regions are feeling it more than others, certainly in the northeast, the Midwest. And that’s only going to continue on. So add to that problems with the Fafsa this year. Add to that. You know, issues of affordability and schools are understandably nervous about what enrollment is going to look like for the next few years.

    Krys Boyd [00:29:33] Broadly speaking, do we know what happens to students who were academically qualified to go to college but didn’t end up going because they couldn’t afford it? Like, how do they how do they turn out financially 20 years down the road?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:29:48] I mean, there’s still research coming out about that, and I think there’s a good sense that there is a loss in earning potential, right, for students in that class. And certainly there are a lot of colleges, especially in the last couple of years, that use a lot of the federal Covid dollars to try to reengage that population of students who either started and stopped or, you know, were very much academically ready to go, but never was able to really pull the trigger there. And that’s that’s starting to show some success. And a lot of small regional public institutions, some private schools as well, where you’re seeing more adult population, meaning folks over the age of 26 returning to college. But college, you know, admissions folks will tell you we want to get them when they’re actually really ready to come. Why lose that opportunity? Because of money?

    Krys Boyd [00:30:41] Danielle, is it possible to say, like, why the Fafsa overhaul has been such disaster? Are the problems mainly technical?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:30:51] I think there’s a lot of blame to go around. And the problems aren’t all technical. A lot of it is, is interpersonal miscommunications. A fair amount of it is not meeting deadlines, and it’s just the challenges and almost routine challenges of taking on any kind of massive government project with contractors involved with, internal folks involved, people probably being a little too sunny in their projections of their ability to fix problems, and not being realistic in how much work it’s going to take. So it’s a little bit of all of that.

    Krys Boyd [00:31:28] This has echoes of the initial botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, doesn’t it?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:31:34] Oh, definitely. It definitely does. I think the challenge here is the stakes to my mind, feel a little higher in the sense of, I don’t know if you could really fix what’s happening this year, right. If you do end up seeing scores of students sitting out and not coming back, then all of the fixes and the workarounds are for nothing in terms of losing out on this class of of students. And what’s what’s striking to me is this is the class of students who entered high school, having to do in-home Covid learning. Right? They were trying to be resilient through a really tough time. And yet again, at the end of their high school education, they are being forced to try to be resilient through a really tough time that is not of their making.

    Krys Boyd [00:32:26] We’ll note that the problems with the Affordable Care Act have largely been, corrected for some time now. Is there something, though, that the Department of Education could have learned from those challenges, could have taken lessons from the ACA?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:32:41] I think testing out a lot of the technology ahead of time, would have been useful, you know, spoken to financial aid officers who said, when we make small changes in the Fafsa in previous years, it would be months and months of testing that didn’t really happen this time. And these were huge changes. So certainly giving them the department, giving itself a bit more time to make sure that all there weren’t any kinks and glitches in the system, doing more of a a test on both sides with the colleges and making sure colleges were fully prepared. It’s a pretty involved process to send the Fafsa data to the colleges for the colleges to test, to make sure to look at that data against the records they already have. And all of those pieces can easily fall apart if they’re not given enough time to work themselves out. And this year was no one was given enough time to really fix these issues.

    Krys Boyd [00:33:39] I didn’t know until I started diving into your reporting deeply that the U.S. Digital Service was a thing. Explain what this is and the role it’s playing in all of this.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:33:49] So ironically, the U.S. Digital Service came about after the Obama rollout, okay. So disastrous. So they were created to kind of be the cleanup folks, and perhaps it would have been better to have them work on the on the Fafsa from the jump, not when things started to go awry. And I think, again, that’s one of the lessons that could be been learned here is resources and who you rely on. You know, the department relied on a contractor, one of four, but still, one that had a lot of, a lot played a large role in this that had created the Fafsa form many, many moons ago and thought that that contractor would be able to, do a great job this time around. And not to say that they haven’t, but my reporting has raised lots of questions about the competency of the contractor and whether or not there was clear communication about the problems that contractors were running into a year ago with, the back end operations of the Fafsa and people not really paying a whole lot of attention to a whole lot of red flags, that this rollout was going to be problematic.

    Krys Boyd [00:34:57] What are you hearing from within the Department of Education about things that were less than ideal, about the order to do that?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:35:07] There’s a lot of frustration. There are a lot of people working 24 hours a day. Almost. Right, to make sure to clean this up and to make sure that families have what they they need in order to make an informed decision. But there are a lot of people who said that we could have started to do this years ago. We should have had a better plan in place to make sure that we could catch all of these problems, these glitches. And there were others who said, well, actually, we told Congress we needed an extra two years. They decided not to give it to us. And, you know, political appointees decided not to push for it because everyone wanted the wind of delivering this, but didn’t fully appreciate the work that would go into getting that wind.

    Krys Boyd [00:35:49] I mean, you know, from a distance, it seems like it should have been a relatively simple thing, but you’re talking about millions of people and complicated financial formulas. I mean, I guess it stands to reason that no matter how much time you plan for, you will probably need more time.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:36:06] Oh, definitely. And to be fair, I mean, not only it’s not only the Department of Education’s head that’s experienced glitches with this form, the IRS experienced glitches with the new form as well in, transferring over, some of the information numbers got, switched around fields. Data went to the wrong fields in some instances. So it’s a big undertaking. And for everyone involved, I think they needed a clearer picture of what it would take to get this done. I don’t know if money is necessarily the issue here. Time perhaps is more than anything else, but then also will. Well, look, I I’ve heard from lots of people within the department that this wasn’t as much of a priority as they believe that it should have been. There was just this belief that this was a technocratic venture and they could take care of it. We don’t have to worry about it until they did. And so I do hope for this next cycle coming up. There’s a clear sense that, oh, no, there’s so much we need to test and check out before October.

    Krys Boyd [00:37:08] Well, Congress called for these changes initially during the Trump administration, but the timeline for getting them done has largely fallen to the Biden administration. And that’s just a factor of who was president when. But some people think the Biden administration has been focused on trying to do student loan forgiveness after people have left school, to the detriment of getting student aid to current and future students. Is that a fair criticism?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:37:36] I mean, it’s it’s debatable. Certainly I’ve spoken to people within the department right now who say, look, it’s not like we stopped working on the Fafsa at any point in time, but was it difficult to get the attention of the higher up sometimes when we had ran into problems? Yes. Was it difficult to explain to people that there were going to be these delays if we didn’t address these problems? Yes. And so I don’t think that the Biden administration didn’t appreciate the importance and significance of this massive overhaul of the Fafsa. But I do think that they have a really ambitious agenda between the negotiated rulemaking for all of these regulations that have come into play, the student loan forgiveness, tweaking existing student loan forgiveness programs, they were trying to do a lot in a little amount of time. And certainly there are a lot of people within the department and outside of the department who said that perhaps do less and focus on doing 1 or 2 things really, really well. Particularly, the Fafsa should have been the bigger priority.

    Krys Boyd [00:38:41] Is there evidence that some students are taking out more in loans than they might otherwise need to, because they just are eager to move forward, regardless of of what Fafsa is able to do for them.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:38:53] We haven’t quite seen that yet. I mean, I will say there are caps on what undergraduates can take from one year to the next. So, you know, by your senior year you can take no more than, I think like $28,000 in loans. Still, you know, not nothing to sneeze at, but it is it’s still not the kind of six figure debt that we often hear about in a lot of media reports. The students that I’ve spoken with, and I think the data kind of backs this up. They’re pretty nervous about taking on a whole lot of student loans. And certainly undergraduate student loan borrowing has been on the decline. Where you’re seeing a lot of debt is graduate school.

    Krys Boyd [00:39:29] I’m glad you brought that up, that students are sort of well aware or many students of the implications of taking out these large loans and that that, broadly speaking, the loans they graduate with are not quite as high as some of what we’ve heard reported, because I think sometimes there can be an assumption that, you know, these kids just didn’t know what they were doing, and then they’re stuck with $125,000 in debt. That that does happen, but it sounds like it’s a very small minority of people dealing with student loans.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:39:56] I mean, the last time we ran the numbers, about 8% of the 40 plus million people who have student loan debt have six figure debt. The vast majority do not. They tend to have smaller numbers. Certainly they see their balances grow. And in the past, it’s been very much because of the way interest compounds on federal student loans. But people are more conscientious about the debt that they’re taking on. And if you hear about undergraduates with like $100,000 worth of debt, that means they have federal and private loans that they’re taking. That’s not from the federal government because they’re caps in place.

    Krys Boyd [00:40:32] So many people involved in all of this. Not not students and parents themselves, but, you know, like teachers and universities and presumably people who work at the education department actually have like a genuine interest in, in helping students get their education. I mean, have you heard kind of an existential frustration from people who realize just what a disaster this particular rollout has been, regardless of where blame should lie?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:41:01] Oh, yeah. I mean, at this point, I don’t think people care as much who’s at fault. They just want to get it done for their students. Everyone I’ve spoken to, from financial aid officers at colleges to high school counselors and college access groups, everyone is frustrated. This is a season unlike any other Fafsa cycle. And I think what’s really depressing, especially for college access folks, is that there was a period where it seemed like Fafsa completion rates were trending up. You know, save for for Covid, which which definitely did throw a wrench in that trajectory. But you were seeing a lot of states requiring students to fill out the Fafsa in order to, graduate. And that’s debatable whether or not that policy is the best, but it certainly did help to increase, Fafsa completion rates in places like Louisiana. And I think also California. Texas, I think also has these states that have really huge populations of high school students and really huge, college, higher education kind of networks. Right. And so seeing it completion just take a nosedive after all of that work to really increase the numbers and to really raise awareness about how important it is to fill out the form is really demoralizing for all the folks who are involved in this.

    Krys Boyd [00:42:22] Okay. We’re going to finish with the multi-billion dollar question. Is there a reason to think this horrible year will ultimately be an aberration, and that these problems will be mostly ironed out in time for, the 2025, 2026 school year?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:42:38] I’m generally an optimistic person, and so I want to believe that that will definitely be the case. I think we’re not going to see problems on this scale, but I do feel that there are some residual issues that haven’t fully been worked out, and I don’t know if they will be by October, which is right around the corner.

    Krys Boyd [00:43:00] Nobody’s talked about going back to the old form in the interim, right?

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:43:03] Oh, God. No. I mean, it was it was too much. I mean, to be fair, there are some students who are filling out the paper form of the the current Fafsa, and they’re not having any fun doing that because you have to manually input everything. But all in all, once you can get past how messy this rollout was, the new form is is better, it is easier, it is more. It is easier for students to get through. It’s easier for families to get through. But the way that it was rolled out this season, I worry that it may undermine all of the benefits of this new streamlined form.

    Krys Boyd [00:43:42] Danielle Douglas Gabriel is national higher education reporter for The Washington Post, where you can find her coverage of the recent changes to Fafsa. Danielle, thank you for sharing all your reporting on this.

    Danielle Douglas Gabriel [00:43:53] Thank you for having me.

    Krys Boyd [00:43:55] You can find us on Facebook and Instagram and subscribe to our podcast. Wherever you like to get podcasts, just search for KERA think and it’ll pop up for you or listen at our website. Thanks, Coorg. Again, I’m Chris Boyd. Thanks for listening. Have a great day.