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FAFSA problems causing delays in student financial aid

A UNC Charlotte official says the university extended its commitment date because of the aid delays.

Nationwide, colleges and universities are struggling to get financial aid packages to students due to problems with the federal form they must fill out to determine financial aid eligibility. Federal education department officials rolled out a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid form this year and it has been plagued with technical glitches and miscalculations.

Sarah Humphries, director of undergraduate admissions at UNC Charlotte, says normally students have access to the FAFSA form in October but the new version was not available until Dec. 31. Humphries tells WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn they are not able to send financial aid packages to students until the kinks are worked out on the new FAFSA form, which was developed to streamline the process.

Sarah Humphries: It cuts down on the number of questions that students have to respond to in the FAFSA, which obviously sometimes comes from your parents information. And it was a pretty cumbersome form before, so the spirit behind this is really streamlining it and making it an easier form for students to complete and when it works, it does just that. The fact that it connects directly to an IRS tool so you don't have to go and look at your old tax returns, it connects directly to the IRS, so, in theory this is going to be a quicker and simpler FAFSA process for students it's just that the rollout in this first year has led to some delays.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Tell us about some of the things that have gone wrong with it.

Humphries:  The timeline is really what has been the biggest challenge. We usually are able to start getting financial aid packages out to students in February, but we just received, along with a number of other UNC system schools and schools nationwide just received our first batch of federal aid data last week and I think that it just took them a long time to get the form live. But then students started submitting it and there was a lot of traffic that was happening on the website all at once. The site started crashing, people were getting errors that there were different bugs that they had to work.

Glenn: So where are you now with all of this going on? Where are you now in your process and what kind of effect is it having on students who really need to know how much aid they're going to get?

Humphries: As far as UNC Charlotte is concerned, we moved our commitment deadline, which is typically May 1. We just pushed it back to May 15. That was in line with many other UNC system schools — UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, a lot of schools across the country. We hope that we're able to get a new students for our incoming fall class packages out in early April. But obviously, students need to sit down with them, talk with their families to review them and have time to actually make that really important decision. So we just didn't feel like May 1 was going to give them enough time.

Glenn: And my understanding is that there was also an error that involved a couple hundred thousand students or more where they were given the wrong calculations. Did that happen with you guys as well?

Humphries: Yes, that happened nationwide. They forgot to account for inflation over the past few years, so they had to go back to the drawing board and kind of recalculate some of those calculations that went into who qualifies for federal Pell grants and these other really important calculations that the universities are then using to match against that information to award students those lifelines that are federal Pell grants.

Glenn: Approximately how many students at UNC Charlotte were affected by that miscalculation?

Humphries:  We have received just over 6,000 student records that get to us after they submit their FAFSA.

Glenn: So do you think May 15 is time enough for commitments to be made with the way things have been going, you think that's long enough?

Humphries: I hope it is. As the weeks draw on and if there are any new challenges that we experience, then obviously we will talk not just as a university but as a system on what we plan to do for our incoming students. And then there's also our continuing student population. You know our students who rely on these financial aid packages to determine whether they're going to be able to attend next year. They have a little bit longer of a runway because bills aren't due until later in the summer so we anticipate being able to get those financial aid packages out with plenty of time for them to get registered and reenroll in everything.

Glenn: How many slots do you have for the fall?

Humphries: We are hoping to bring in between 4,500 and 4,600 new first year students.

Glenn: Is that up or down?

Humphries: It's slightly higher than last year. Last year we enrolled 4,501. We have another record-breaking year of applications. We've received over 24,000 applications for admission this year, and I will say the financial aid question has really put a big question mark over, you know, how are students going to behave throughout this enrollment process? But as of right now, students are committing at the same pace that they did last year. UNC Charlotte doesn't have an enrollment deposit, so we don't require students to put money down in order to secure their space in our incoming class, which I think probably has helped our students knowing that they can secure their spots without their financial aid package because it's not a financial commitment up front for them.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.