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### Enrollment Crisis: The Daunting Challenge Colleges Are Confronting

For years, Senator Lamar Alexander was recognized for dramatically unveiling an extensive paper document that he could hold aloft while it trailed along the chamber floor. This document was none other than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA, a mandatory form for all college students and their families seeking federal grants and student loans. Critics contended that the form’s excessive length (comprising over 100 questions) and intricate nature (some joked that a Ph.D. was necessary to complete it) discouraged students from pursuing aid and higher education. In December 2020, just before Alexander’s retirement, Congress passed a bill to streamline the form, aiming for implementation by the graduating class of 2024, marking a rare bipartisan victory for practical governance: reducing paperwork and enabling more students to access college education.

However, the envisioned simplicity quickly turned into chaos during the implementation phase, resulting in significant obstacles for students trying to enroll in college. As the government races to rectify the issues it created, time is ticking away for a whole generation of high school seniors. The potential impact on college enrollment threatens to surpass even the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenges surfaced in the previous autumn. Initially, the Department of Education delayed the online launch of the FAFSA, typically scheduled for October 1, until December. When it finally went live on December 30, just days before the Congress-set deadline, it crashed less than an hour later. Despite being accessible 247 by the second week of January, problems persisted. Students and parents reported random lockouts from the form. Additionally, due to an unidentified technical issue, many students born in the year 2000 [ppp1]. Furthermore, students whose parents lack a Social Security number faced obstacles in completing the form. The department cited “extraordinary wait times” as their helpline was inundated with calls.

On January 30, the day before the department was supposed to send completed forms to colleges, it announced a delay until mid-March to adjust aid formulas for inflation, correcting an oversight that had left approximately $2 billion in unallocated funds. Amy Laitinen, the director for higher education at the think tank New America, remarked on the unprecedented challenges, stating that the magnitude of changes made the process exceedingly tumultuous. Other experts described the situation as a “nightmare,” “unprecedented,” and “a mess all around.”

While most students can now complete the application, the overall scenario remains dire. The department has processed over 4 million forms, yet 2 million applications linger in bureaucratic limbo. Despite colleges beginning to receive information for calculating student aid, new issues keep arising. Many institutions report unusually high error rates in submitted FAFSAs, and students are unable to rectify their forms until early April. Recently, the department disclosed that its processing system inaccurately calculated aid for approximately 200,000 applicants. Each error further delays students’ awareness of their aid eligibility, a crucial factor in their enrollment decisions. With many colleges requiring enrollment confirmation by May 1, applicants have limited time to finalize their choices.

More concerning are the students who may not enroll anywhere. According to Bill DeBaun from the National College Attainment Network, there is a 31% decline in FAFSA submissions by high school seniors compared to the previous year, potentially resulting in 600,000 missing students. This decline, more significant than any during the pandemic, disproportionately affects schools with a high percentage of low-income students, who heavily rely on financial aid to pursue higher education. Additionally, 2 million adults, primarily current college and graduate students, have yet to apply for the upcoming academic year. Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert, emphasized the long-term consequences of hindering college access, particularly for small colleges with a substantial low-income or minority student population.

The current trajectory suggests a decline in college enrollment, with uncertainties surrounding the extent of its impact. The FAFSA rollout narrative reflects both inadequate investment in the public sector and governmental mismanagement. The Biden administration inherited the challenging task of implementing the FAFSA changes initiated in the final days of the Trump administration. The extensive modifications, coupled with a myriad of other pressing education issues, overwhelmed the Department of Education, particularly the Federal Student Aid office responsible for these changes. The budget constraints and conflicting priorities further exacerbated the situation, leading to reliance on third-party contractors and technical setbacks.

As the Education Department strives to mitigate the fallout, employees are working extended shifts to address the FAFSA processing backlog. Efforts include sending personnel to assist colleges in handling students’ financial records and adjusting aid deadlines. Despite these measures, there remains a substantial gap of 2.6 million fewer FAFSA applications compared to the previous year, raising doubts about timely college enrollment for many students. The looming concern centers on the 600,000 high school seniors who have yet to seek financial aid, potentially altering their decision to pursue higher education.

While the revamped FAFSA system aims to benefit low-income students and expand grant eligibility in the long run, the current challenges underscore the arduous path to achieving these goals. The setbacks faced during the rollout may have lasting repercussions, with the class of 2028 potentially bearing the brunt of the transition.

[The author is an assistant editor at The Atlantic.]