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Students are still waiting for aid offers from colleges after a delayed FAFSA rollout

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Delays in the federal student aid application mean that students are still waiting for financial aid offers from colleges. The education department says things should be getting back on track. But as NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports, some students feel like it's too little, too late.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: When we first talked to high school senior Vanessa Cordova Ramirez about two months ago, she had just gotten into her top-choice schools.

VANESSA CORDOVA RAMIREZ: I have had acceptances, luckily, which, you know, really, like, relieves some of the pressure off of me. Right now I'm debating between, like, three schools - St. Joseph's University, Manhattan College and St. John's.

CARRILLO: All three are great schools that don't take her too far away from her parents in Brooklyn, but all are private - ones that she hoped she could pay for with financial aid and scholarships. But because the federal application for student aid has been delayed, she's been left to wonder what she can afford.

CORDOVA RAMIREZ: Obviously, I'm talking with my parents and they're like, you have to understand - we can help you, but only to some extent. And I'm working and trying to save. But yeah, even so, I know I'm not going to be able to afford that.

CARRILLO: Cordova Ramirez is going through what many prospective college students are right now. After years of preparing for college admissions, they're at a standstill. This year's FAFSA overhaul has caused major delays. It opened about three months later than normal, and was further delayed when the department failed to take inflation into account. Schools rely on the department's calculations to know how much federal financial aid a student qualifies for. Once they receive that data, schools offer scholarships or grants and send the full package to students, normally a few days or weeks after an acceptance. But this year, the aid letters never came.

KAREN MCCARTHY: So it's like, congratulations on your acceptance. And then they say nothing about when you're going to hear anything about financial aid.

CARRILLO: That's Karen McCarthy, a vice president at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She says colleges started getting processed applications from the education department a few weeks ago - months later than normal.

MCCARTHY: I don't really even have an estimate for you to share.

CARRILLO: This week, the Ed Department did clear one hurdle - cleaning out the backlog of applications. Around 6.5 million have now been processed. But McCarthy says once schools get all the data, that still isn't quite as close to the finish line as many think.

MCCARTHY: The most, like, on the ball, well-resourced school who really has their process, you know, locked down - it would probably take them two weeks. And that - not all schools are in that position. And that was also assuming that there were no problems at all.

CARRILLO: And there have been problems. Last week there was an error that resulted in having to reprocess about 200,000 applications. On Friday, the Ed Department announced another error but didn't go into specifics. McCarthy says schools have been reporting a lot of problems with the data.

MCCARTHY: We need to get over this next hurdle before schools can, you know, feel confident and start sending out those aid offers.

CARRILLO: Some schools are changing their offer language from official to provisional, in case more problems arise with the formula and say this period may last through the summer. But for students, the waiting is stressful. Vanessa Cordova Ramirez, the high school senior in Brooklyn, says without an aid offer, she's leaning towards a safer choice.

CORDOVA RAMIREZ: I'm just really just stressed out about this not working. So, yeah, like, I'm really just aiming maybe towards a CUNY.

CARRILLO: CUNY, or the City University of New York - it isn't her dream school, but it's a public school with far lower tuition and still close to her parents.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.