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A green hand fanning a wad of bills to a group of grasping gray hands

The Education Department has promised money and advisers to help “underresourced” colleges deal with the latest FAFSA delay. Most institutions that need the help aren’t sure whether they’ll qualify.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week it will allocate $50 million to help make up for the debacle of its much-delayed FAFSA launch. Now colleges are wondering how they can get a piece of that assistance.

The department and its nonprofit partners will recruit and dispatch financial aid experts and advisers to what they called “severely under-resourced campuses,” with a special focus on minority-serving institutions. Such colleges have been affected more acutely by the FAFSA delays than those that have fewer Pell-eligible students or larger financial aid offices with robust technical resources.

But there’s little clarity as to how a college qualifies for that extra assistance, or what “under-resourced” means in this context.

The department said last Monday only that all historically Black and tribal colleges and universities are eligible to receive direct support from the agency. A department spokesperson declined to answer further questions about the support plan, referring instead to last Monday’s press release.

Such murkiness threatens to inflame the frustrations of institutions already struggling with a FAFSA rollout beset by delays, errors and technical problems. It could also turn an attempted face-saving move by the department into yet another fraught, complicated process, aggravating rather than mollifying many colleges.

Meanwhile, institutions are scrambling to adjust their admission timelines to give students and harried financial aid staff more flexibility. On Wednesday, the University of California and California State University systems both pushed their May 1 decision deadlines back by two weeks; others, including Oregon State University, have extended their deadlines to June 1.

Jostling for Position

Department officials said they would focus on getting help to institutions with large low-income populations and overtaxed financial aid offices—minority-serving institutions in particular. But Andrés Castro Samayoa, assistant professor of education at Boston College and a scholar of MSIs, said the “nebulous” definition of an underresourced college could inspire contention among institutions in need of federal support, especially among MSIs.

“On the one hand, I’m happy to see MSIs singled out for this, and it’s important to recognize HBCUs and TCUs,” he said. “But my mind goes to other kinds of MSIs that have historically been overlooked in terms of funding, like predominantly Black institutions”—colleges that serve a majority-Black population but don’t have the historic mission of HBCUs—“and Hispanic-serving institutions.”

Trinity Washington University, a women’s college in Washington, D.C., appears to be exactly the kind of college the department is hoping to help. A Hispanic-serving and predominantly Black institution, its student body is 65 percent African American, 30 percent Latina or Hispanic and over 70 percent Pell-eligible, according to the most recent institutional data. In addition, its undergraduate financial aid office is fairly skeletal, with a handful of full-time employees who share aid-packaging duties with staffers in other offices.

But Pat McGuire, the university’s president, said she has “no idea” whether Trinity Washington will receive a piece of the Education Department’s $50 million pie.

“I suspect we’d be considered, but I really don’t know what their definition is for an ‘underresourced college,’” she said. “Is Trinity underresourced? You bet. But that could mean a million things.”

Other college leaders share that sentiment. When the department announced its college support plan last week, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities was wrapping up its annual conference in Washington, D.C. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona made a surprise appearance, as he did at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference later that day. Attendees at both said the mood was lightened, but they left more confused than reassured.

Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount St. Mary’s University Los Angeles, attended the NAICU conference. She said her Hispanic-serving institution could really use the funds and the additional staffing; Mount St. Mary’s has only six financial aid staffers to package offers for nearly 3,800 applicants this year. But she has no sense of whether her university will be eligible, either.

“It’s just not clear right now where that aid will go. There are so many Hispanic-serving institutions; we’re not a monolith,” she said, pointing out that some of the largest and most well-resourced universities in the country, such as the University of Texas at Austin, are technically HSIs. “And $50 million is a good start, but once you stretch it over all the colleges that need it, it could get pretty thin.”

Justin Monk, NAICU’s director of student and institutional aid policy, said he understands college leaders’ worries about being left out, but he’s optimistic that the department will find a way to be expansive in providing support.

“We don’t know how the department is defining underresourced colleges, but we hope they define it broadly, because every one of our institutions wants to take advantage of these resources,” he said. “How contentious this becomes really depends on how narrowly the department defines what kinds of colleges are eligible. We’re hoping to get some clarity on that next week.”

The stakes are high for small, tuition-dependent colleges like Mount St. Mary’s L.A. and Trinity Washington. McGuire fears the “disastrous” FAFSA rollout could lead to staff breakdowns, which in turn could disrupt student aid offers. When students themselves feel that level of uncertainty, they could melt off before even receiving a package, she said.

“When the ISIRs [Institutional Student Information Records] finally roll in, it’s going to be like a tsunami bunched up against a pier,” McGuire said. “If our yield numbers are off by even 100 students, that could be financially catastrophic.”

‘Don’t Add to the Confusion’

There have been some concrete developments in how the corps of advisers will be mobilized. NASFAA, ED’s first nonprofit partner in this venture, announced Thursday that it will use its existing consultant service, Blue Icon Advisors, to recruit and compensate “members of the financial aid community who … can assist with financial aid management systems or processing” in campus visits and remote consultations.

McGuire said that part of the support plan “left a lot of us scratching our heads.”

“Our staff is stressed out enough without the thought of some strangers walking in here telling them what to do,” she said. “It seems like a solution in search of a problem. Why enrich a bunch of consultants when you could provide material support directly to the institutions?”

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, college presidents and financial aid professionals offered a few recurring suggestions for support that would make a difference. In addition to getting the ISIRs to colleges sooner than March, they proposed waiving income verification requirements and addressing unsolved technical issues, like a glitch that has prevented undocumented parents from filling out the form.

McElaney-Johnson said she doesn’t blame the department for the botched rollout; she sees the congressional mandate to overhaul FAFSA as an inordinately tall order issued without sufficient funding. But she hopes that department officials listen to college leaders when they tell them what they need now.

“We are truly appreciative of these first steps,” she said. “We just hope there will be more.”

After the past six months of errors and delays in the FAFSA rollout, McGuire doesn’t have the same confidence.

“There’s a lot of cynicism right now,” she said. “This whole process is what the word ‘snafu’ was created for.”

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