FAFSA Rollout Creates Chaos but Sparks Support for Mandatory Completion Policies


This year's rollout of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was fraught with difficulties. What was supposed to be a simpler, more user-friendly form turned into a complex and error-ridden process for many.

Technical glitches and calculation errors plagued the system, causing significant delays. Students and colleges were left in a state of uncertainty, anxiously waiting for need-based scholarship awards to be processed. Experts warned that this could lead to steep declines in college enrollment. Despite the chaos, an unexpected positive outcome emerged for college access advocates: increased support for state legislation mandating FAFSA completion.

FAFSA Rollout Creates Chaos but Sparks Support for Mandatory Completion Policies

(Photo : PEXELS / Pixabay)

Universal FAFSA Policies: A Rising Tide

Universal FAFSA policies, which require students to complete the federal aid form to graduate from high school, have been championed by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) and various local nonprofits for over a decade. The rationale is that these policies encourage more students to enroll in postsecondary education by ensuring they apply for financial aid.

As of this spring, 15 states had passed some form of universal FAFSA policy, with eight states implementing it this past academic year. Recent information provided by NCAN and case studies conducted by SHEEO indicate that these states achieved high FAFSA completion rates despite technical challenges. For instance, Illinois and Texas, early adopters of the policy, ranked third and fifth in completion rates, respectively, as of June 21.

Indiana, which introduced its FAFSA completion requirement this past academic year, saw the smallest decrease in completion rates, dropping by just 1.1 percent. This data suggests that universal FAFSA policies can help mitigate the negative impacts of system failures.

Rachel Burns, a senior policy analyst at SHEEO, noted, "States are likely to see the value in universal FAFSA policies, especially given the resources and support systems these policies help to establish."

READ MORE: FAFSA Crisis Deepens As Cordray Addresses Challenges And Promises Improvements 

Protection During Difficult Times

Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, highlighted that Alabama's long-standing universal FAFSA program helped maintain relatively high completion rates despite the year's challenges. Alabama's requirement, which has been in place since the 2021-22 academic year, mandates that high school seniors complete the FAFSA to graduate, though they can opt out with parental consent.

Although Alabama experienced a 19.8 percentage point drop in FAFSA completion, the state still ranked 16th nationally with a 45.8 percent completion rate. Purcell emphasized the importance of continued outreach and support, even beyond high school graduation, to ensure students complete the FAFSA and secure financial aid.

Similarly, Indiana's new universal FAFSA policy helped minimize the impact of this year's difficulties. Greg Harrell, director of legislation and program implementation for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, credited the policy with the state's relatively stable completion rate. Harrell noted that the opt-out provisions built into the policy were crucial in gaining legislative support and ensuring that the requirement did not prevent students from graduating.

The Future of FAFSA Mandates

While some states are just beginning to implement universal FAFSA policies, there are concerns about their sustainability, particularly if technical issues with the FAFSA platform persist. Ritchie Morrow, financial aid officer for the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, expressed worries that ongoing problems could undermine support for the new policy set to take effect this fall.

In conservative states, where there is often resistance to adding government bureaucracy, any failures in the FAFSA process could lead to calls for repeal. This concern is not unfounded. In West Virginia, the governor temporarily suspended the FAFSA completion requirement due to this year's complications. Similarly, Louisiana permanently rolled back its requirement, citing the burden on students and a preference for promoting vocational paths.

Despite these setbacks, experts like Katherine Meyer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, argue that temporary rollbacks are not indicative of long-term trends. Meyer believes that the benefits of universal FAFSA policies, including ensuring students receive eligible federal aid and potentially saving states money on their scholarship programs, will drive continued adoption.

"FAFSA completion mandates are likely to persist because they fundamentally help students access the financial aid they need," Meyer stated. "In the long run, states will see the value in maintaining and expanding these policies."

While this year's FAFSA rollout was undeniably problematic, it also highlighted the resilience and adaptability of universal FAFSA policies. As states navigate the challenges, the commitment to ensuring students access financial aid remains strong, promising a future where more students can pursue higher education opportunities.

RELATED ARTICLE: Education Department Under Fire For Alleged Non-Compliance With FAFSA Investigation 

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