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Wooden blocks spell out “FAFSA” atop a computer keyboard, next to two stacks of cash money.

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As the dust settles on the backlog of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) forms awaiting processing, it’s clear that the extended delays have prompted a necessary reevaluation of admission commitment deadlines. The unprecedented delays have catalyzed a vital conversation about accessibility and equity in higher education and led many institutions to push back the deadlines by which students must commit to an institution and submit a deposit.

The current predicament reminds me of the challenges faced when standardized tests became inaccessible four years ago as the COVID-19 pandemic raged. At the time, higher education institutions swiftly adapted and created test-optional admission processes. While some colleges have recently reinstated those standardized test requirements, the majority of colleges have permanently adopted student-focused and access-friendly test-optional practices.

Hundreds of colleges also pushed back their deposit deadlines during the first year of the pandemic, shifting from the historical date of May 1 to June 1, or later.

Pushing back commitment deadlines and making standardized testing optional are both proven ways to make college more accessible for more students. It’s evident that higher education can function effectively with these changes, and it’s logical and imperative to consider making them both permanent.

My argument is primarily one of inclusion and access. Establishing commitment deadlines that precede the start of the term by such a significant time period makes it very difficult for nontraditional students to start a degree. It is unrealistic and unfair to assume they will know whether and where they want to go to college a full four months before their first class meets. According to federal data, in fall 2017, only 67 percent of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college. If we optimistically assume that 70 percent of those who went to college straight out of high school earned their degree, that means more than half of all graduating high school students from the class of 2017 don’t currently have a degree. For some, they don’t want or need that degree, but for many more, “going back to school” is at the forefront of their minds.

This is also an equity issue. Last year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) surveyed a national group of students between the ages of 16 and 22 and found that 42 percent of white students said college applications were their most stressful academic experience, compared to 60 percent of Black students, 61 percent of Hispanic students and 63 percent of Asian students who said the same. We should give these students as much time as possible before forcing them into a decision that will significantly impact the rest of their lives.

Ultimately, prioritizing accessibility and equity in higher education demands a reevaluation of longstanding practices. Extending commitment deadlines represents a tangible step toward creating a more inclusive and accommodating environment for all aspiring learners, especially for students who are not enrolling straight from high school and who often have job and family obligations.

Colleges all have different fall start dates, but not typically before mid-August. Shouldn’t June 15, or something even a little later, work? Let’s seize this opportunity for lasting change and ensure that every student has the chance to pursue their educational aspirations, regardless of circumstance, and not close out some of the top colleges in the country to nontraditional and diverse students before the high school year is even complete.

Is it time, in short, to acknowledge that the arbitrary May 1 commitment deadline is in place for the convenience of colleges, and not for our students?

Chuck Knepfle is vice president for enrollment management at Portland State University.

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