Jack Walker Published

Miscalculation Means Fewer College Students May Get Federal Aid Than Expected

The sun sets over Fairmont State University's campus. A building with two tall columns and long, glass panes out front reflects the sunset. A cement path cuts through a grass quad, leading to the building.
The sun sets over an athletics and student center at Fairmont State University in Marion County.
Jack Walker/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Fewer college students may be eligible for federal financial aid this year than initially anticipated, following a miscalculation from education officials.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Education began to overhaul its Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA determines how much federal and state aid college students are eligible for based on factors like household income and assets, but has long been criticized as overly complicated.

The overhaul slashed the number of FAFSA questions by about two-thirds. It also allowed students to submit financial data through the Internal Revenue Service directly, instead of reporting it themselves.

Additionally, the change reconfigured the FAFSA eligibility formula, expanding federal aid eligibility to more students. These adjustments initially brought a three-month delay to this year’s FAFSA process.

But that delay only grew when, in January, education officials discovered a miscalculation in the new aid formula overstated how many students qualify for a federal grant called the Pell Grant by at least 100,000.

The Pell Grant provides low-income students thousands of tuition dollars that they are not required to repay.

In the weeks following the discovery, lawmakers have scrambled to fix the FAFSA process so students can receive financial aid information before making college decisions.

On Thursday, the United States Congress passed a resolution that corrected the formula error, reducing the number of students who will be eligible for federal grants in the year ahead.

Some Democratic lawmakers expressed concern in reducing financial aid eligibility. However, several Republican lawmakers said the resolution passed last week preserves the integrity of the FAFSA process.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed support for the formula fix in a press release Monday. She said it ensured this year’s federal aid distribution adheres to the law, and that it will end the repeated FAFSA delays.

“I was proud to help author a fix to the FAFSA Simplification Act,” she said. “I am hopeful that this fix will sustain and shore up the Pell Grant program for the future.”

The Department of Education plans to help colleges and universities process FAFSA information this month. West Virginia University and many other state institutions across the country have delayed application deadlines because of the complications.