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Two men in suits sitting at a desk

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona answers questions about next year’s FAFSA, among other things, at a House Appropriations Committee hearing in April.

Sha Hanting/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

The bungled rollout of this year’s new Free Application for Federal Student Aid started with a two-month delay, pushing the usual Oct. 1 launch date to the end of December—a shift that raised eyebrows across higher ed and portended the disastrous financial aid cycle that followed.

So when U.S. education secretary Miguel Cardona appeared at House hearing on the issue last month, it’s no surprise lawmakers repeatedly asked him to commit to a timely release for this year’s form.

“I said before, and I’ll repeat it again,” an exasperated Cardona told New York Republican Brandon Williams after multiple questions along those lines. “I’m making sure that the staff knows this is the highest priority, and that it’s my expectation that on Oct. 1, it’s ready.”

Williams still wasn’t satisfied.

“You’re certain?” he asked.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones dubious about the department’s timeline. Earlier this month, a coalition of 25 advocacy organizations, including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the National College Attainment Network, sent the department a letter urging officials to commit to an Oct. 1 launch date for next year’s form.

“We are concerned that the FAFSA will be delayed again, and that the release date will remain uncertain until just before the form becomes available,” the letter read. “This approach will lead to a repeat of last year, with schools and counselors unable to plan the counseling and outreach efforts that are needed, colleges unable to ensure a smooth and timely process for generating financial aid offers, and students left in the lurch.”

There is plenty of reason to be worried, said Jill Desjean, NASFAA’s director of policy analysis. Last year the ED released a draft of the new FAFSA on March 27, she said; by this point in the early summer, they usually have a second draft ready for testing.

This year, “We haven’t even seen the first draft yet,” she said.

Education Department officials have said they’ve already worked through the new form’s biggest technical and logistical issues and are prepared for a much easier rollout in the fall.

“We have heard from students, families, institutions, states, and those that support them that it is important for the 2025–26 FAFSA form to launch on October 1,” read a department announcement last week. “The Department has made significant progress to address and resolve all major known issues with the 2024–25 form and will continue to make improvements to the form to enable a better user experience.”

Desjean said the department seems to be making a real effort to learn from its mistakes. But with this year’s delays and missteps burdening the Federal Student Aid office well into the summer, she’d be surprised to see officials meet the deadline with a finished product.

“I know how slammed they are and how overwhelmed they are, still dealing with the fallout of this year,” she said. “And whenever something’s rushed, it usually doesn’t end well—as we’ve seen this year.”

Enrollment managers and financial aid professionals, scarred by this year’s rollout, say they want to believe ED officials, but their confidence is low.

“As the old saying goes, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,’” said Tom Delahunt, president for strategic recruitment and enrollment at Southwestern University. “A lot of folks felt fooled this year. I don’t think we’ll get fooled again.”

Getting on Track

A smooth Oct. 1 launch may be especially challenging given recent turbulence within the department. FSA chief Richard Cordray is stepping down at the end of the month, creating a vacuum at the top of the office responsible for the federal aid form. It’s also an election year, which brings the possibility of big personnel shake-ups if the White House changes party hands again.

“Between [Cordray’s] departure and the instability and uncertainty that comes with an election year … all of this leads me to believe there will be a delay,” said Rob Reddy, vice president for enrollment management at St. Louis University. “If I don’t prepare for that eventuality, I’d be derelict in my job.”

But there are reasons for optimism as well. Last Friday the department announced the appointment of its first-ever FAFSA czar, College Board president Jeremy Singer, to steward next year’s rollout. Singer oversaw the development and launch of the new digital SAT and has been involved in operations for the College Board’s FAFSA alternative, the College Scholarship Service Profile, since 2013.

Last week, department officials announced they would not open up the FAFSA for public comment or substantively change this year’s form, making the Oct. 1 deadline more realistic by eliminating the usual 90-day comment period. But many financial aid professionals are upset that one of the few transparent venues available to critique the form has been closed off.

“I’d say this increases the likelihood they’ll meet the Oct. 1 launch date, but it comes at the cost of not making changes for next year,” Desjean said. “Given the magnitude of the changes from this year, I think people would have appreciated the time to comment.”

Rachelle Feldman, vice provost for enrollment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said there are a few obtusely phrased questions on this year’s form that prompted a flood of corrections, which she’d like to see reworded for next year. Those include a question asking students if they want to apply for unsubsidized loans, which contains multiple double negatives and was highlighted by NCAN in its list of recommended FAFSA improvements published last Thursday.

“There’s some balance between asking them to implement those [changes] and being ready on time,” Feldman said.

Multiple enrollment and financial aid officials told Inside Higher Ed that it’s less important that the department hit the Oct. 1 deadline than it is for the form to work smoothly on day one. Feldman said the new form’s persistent technical problems and limited functionality were much more problematic than the delays this past year.

“I would much rather that the FAFSA be ready without errors and with full capability … on Nov. 1 or Dec. 1—or even Dec. 10—than have it roll out in October full of problems,” she said. “If the department needs more time to make it work correctly, I would much rather see them do that, as long as it’s not a continual reshuffling [of the launch date]. And I’d rather they communicated about that right now.”

Backup Plans

Once students submit their forms, it’s crucial for colleges to act on them quickly, Feldman said, noting that the gap between the form’s availability and institutions’ access to data was a major factor in this year’s fiasco.

“The day they release it for families to enter data should be the same day the functionality is there to send that data to the school so that schools can be good partners in helping students complete the FAFSA and understand the results,” Feldman said. “There’s really no point in having students begin a FAFSA and then if they get stuck, no one can help them.”

Many colleges are readying a backup option in case the department does not have a working form by October.

When the delays became untenable this spring, both Southwestern and St. Louis Universities released their own versions of the form to jump-start the financial aid packaging process. Delahunt and Reddy said the move staved off some of the worst enrollment impacts of the botched rollout, and they’re both planning to use it again this fall.

“I think [our] form, which we created out of necessity, will become a regular tool from now on,” Delahunt said.

That colleges feel a need for this kind of fail-safe reflects how deeply the bungled rollout has eroded the financial aid community’s trust in the department. The best way to regain that trust, multiple financial aid officials said, is for the ED to be transparent about any potential delays and forthcoming about what caused the past year’s debacle.

“We need clear, honest communications. And they need to own the problem,” Reddy said. “So far, that hasn’t happened.”

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