The Trouble with FAFSA – Possible Waitlists Ahead

The Trouble with FAFSA – Possible Waitlists Ahead

Many of you have no doubt heard about the recent troubles with the Department of Education’s rollout of the new FAFSA this year. If not, here’s the brief brief:

  • The launch of the new FAFSA was delayed from its typical October timeline to (essentially) January…
  • When it did launch, the site crashed often, leaving families waiting – sometimes for hours, sometimes weeks – before they were able to log back on to complete their applications for aid
  • Once this tech issue was resolved, the Department of Ed announced that a miscalculation had been built into the program, which would further delay the processing of financial aid for millions of students
  • Most colleges and universities will not begin receiving the information they need to calculate student financial aid packages until this week
  • And this processing delay – in and of itself – created further problems because it meant that many students couldn’t “correct” their FAFSA to apply for aid at schools beyond the original 20-institution limit.

And on it goes. A New York Times article last weekend reported that there were approximately 70,000 unread emails in the FAFSA inbox with “crucial identifying information required for financial aid.”

If your family is applying for financial aid this year, then you have likely already felt some of these impacts. 

But even if your family is in the fortunate position of not needing to apply for aid, this situation may affect you. Please read on to glean some of the possible downstream effects for everyone:

First, the FAFSA delays are going to make it difficult for colleges and universities to create individual financial aid packages in a timely manner and to incorporate the financial modeling they need to admit fiscally sustainable classes.

This financial uncertainty – this “not knowing” – has already created backlogs in many college admissions departments and, fortunately, is leading many forward-thinking colleges to extend their enrollment response deadlines from the traditional May 1st to May 15th and, in some cases, June 1st. These schools understand that students and families with financial need will need more time to weigh their financial aid packages and make responsible enrollment decisions. 

“Great, more time!” you say. Except if even one of your many schools is requiring a response by May 1st, it’s hardly a benefit. You and your family will still need to make some decisions by May 1st. Students must remain meticulously attentive to their different enrollment deadlines!

Equally concerning is that many colleges will likely place large groups of students on waitlists to hedge against their enrollment concerns. Waitlist activity has been on the rise over the past few years, but we expect ever-increasing reliance on waitlists this spring. 

A quick primer on waitlists: a) They draw the college process out even longer for students and families, sometimes as late as July. b) If a student is waitlisted at one of their top colleges and would still like the opportunity to attend, there is no guarantee of admission, so they should enroll at their current best option. c) If later, the student is fortunate enough to be offered enrollment from the waitlist, they are free to make the change, but they’ll lose their enrollment deposit from the previous school – sometimes a thousand dollars or more.

And while all of this “not knowing” is destabilizing for everybody, it could be even more damaging to first-generation and low-income students. Not having a financial aid package in hand when enrollment deadlines come around may keep many undocumented, Pell-eligible, and low-income students from enrolling altogether, simply opting out of the entire higher ed proposition. Or in the event of a waitlist, some of these students may not be able to forgo their tuition deposit in order to switch to their preferred school. 

It is too soon to say, but further downstream, the bungled rollout of the new FAFSA and enrollment mess it has caused may cripple smaller, more tuition-dependent institutions. We hope it’s not the case, but some small but wonderful educational options may simply cease to exist in the coming years. 

Passionate curiosity may be the key

Passionate curiosity may be the key

Recently I traveled back home to South Africa with a small group of graduate students on a study trip. It was wonderful because they were wonderful – smart, funny, and interesting. But in addition to amusing conversations about the etymology of words and debates about the addictive qualities of desserts, we also participated in hard, serious conversations about challenging subjects, from government corruption to the state of conservation.

What struck me most in these conversations, though, was the passionate curiosity, as Einstein described it, that these young people—by any measure some of the highest achievers in their respective fields in the world—could bring to almost any subject. Whether the conversation was about democracy or economic policy or historical injustice, and regardless of their field, they could ask thoughtful questions. I realized that what set them apart, and probably did even when they first applied to college, was a driving desire to know—what Stanford, in an earlier iteration of its application, called “intellectual vitality.”

I have often thought about this quality in my previous life as an admission officer for Brown. In that capacity, I read close to two thousand applications each season. I think it hard for someone who has not participated in the process of evaluating applications at a super-selective college to understand just how exceptionally deep its applicant pool is in talent. It is a pool in which a college can admit a completely different group of students without shifting the markers of excellence of its admitted class.

That excellence is oddly comforting—it’s nice to know there are so many smart, accomplished, and interesting young people in the world! It is also the most challenging aspect of selective admission: when you have such a huge number of outstanding applicants and you only have space for a small, fixed number of them, how do you make meaningful decisions? Sometimes the choice is led by an institutional agenda. A selective school can meet its specific needs—in a given year it might be for students in particular fields of study; students underrepresented by race or ethnicity; or those with particular skills, such as oboists or sculptors—without ever dipping far into an accomplished pool of applicants. If, at a very selective school, great academic results unlock the door, it is this dollop of something extra that propels an applicant through it and into the class.

For some students, the bit of extra that they bring to the table might be intellectual curiosity. Thinking of this reminds me of a conversation with an admission officer at MIT about the kinds of students that they prefer to admit. He said that they liked to see “students who were building a rocket in their garage.” I don’t think he meant it literally – though perhaps doing so would actually win you points at MIT! Instead, I took it to mean that he was really describing students who were so excited about an idea, so driven by curiosity, that they were willing to invest and participate in any opportunity to learn more and to explore.

All of which brings me back to where I started. Many parents want to know how to put their child on the path to an Ivy or a school of similar brand (scarily enough, even parents of elementary school students!). Should they invest in yet another expensive summer program at a brand-name school? Should their child seek out a summer research internship with a local professor, or found a club at school to do what three other clubs already do? In truth, their children should do whatever will encourage them to develop a voracious curiosity, a drive to know and understand aspects of their world, a desire to have their lovely young minds blown by something interesting. Those students may or may not make it to their parents’ dream school in the end, but they will have the capacity to wring an extraordinary education from any school that is lucky enough to have them.

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