For many low-income college students, the prevailing Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) delays are causing added panic to our ever-growing educational crisis of soaring college costs. For me, the annual FAFSA form was always an unnerving part of my college experience because it determined whether I would be able to return to school in the forthcoming academic year. The programs and grants solely administered through FAFSA, such as the Federal Work Study Program and the Pell Grant, were critical to my and many other low-income students’ ability to enroll in college and attain a postsecondary degree. My experience is far from the exception; the current FAFSA delays pose an added hurdle to increasingly inaccessible higher educational attainment.  

Recently, the FAFSA process officially became available to students on December 31, 2023, via a “soft-launch.” In the past, the FAFSA form for the approaching school year was made available by the previous October. Not only was the form released much later in the year, but it was only available for half an hour a day (this later increased to two hours a day) when it was first released. Since January 3, the FAFSA form has only been open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST. Even then, not all students who visit the FAFSA website are granted access right away but are instead directed to a “waiting room” for several minutes at a time. These delays can have serious implications for student aid offers and college enrollment.  

The FAFSA was delayed this year as part of the unveiling of a “new and improved” form under the FAFSA Simplification Act. While the Department of Education has been implementing changes introduced by the FAFSA Simplification Act since the 2021–2022 Award Year, the 2024–2025 award year marks the final phase of the Department’s implementation of these changes. As a result, the FAFSA Simplification Act introduced many changes to FAFSA at large, but its execution has been highly flawed. 

The FAFSA is an essential part of the college application and admission process amid rising unaffordable tuition costs. Nearly 84 percent of college students receive some sort of financial aid, with student loans and grants being the most commonly used types. Many students decide on college enrollment based on affordability and aid received through FAFSA. With already unaffordable college costs and a delayed FAFSA application, students’ ability to pursue a postsecondary degree in the forthcoming fall semester may decrease. According to an IWPR poll, 79 percent of adults find it important for Congress to take action to make college more affordable.   

Postsecondary education and degrees are critical for economic stability, security, and advancement for all women. While undergraduate women are 8 percent more likely to use financial aid than male undergraduates, financial aid recipients are 40 percent more likely to be women. Analyzing women’s educational trajectories and economic mobility must be observed through an intersectional lens. For example, Black women are more likely to be low-income and first-generation students. Student parents often face enormous financial barriers to academic success and are much more likely to take out educational loans than students without children.   

With the Supreme Court’s reversal of affirmative action, women of color are especially vulnerable. Due to the historical racial barriers that exist within educational institutions and the misogynistic underpinnings that prevent economic mobility, limiting educational affordability, women of color are at a particular disadvantage when pursuing higher education. According to an IWPR poll, a majority of adults think the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action will impact access to higher education, diversity on college campuses, and the quality of higher education.  

The recent technical difficulties when accessing the FAFSA website are not the only changes to federal education funding that students preparing for the forthcoming academic year are navigating. The Department of Education has implemented many seemingly positive changes to the new FAFSA process, such as removing the time limit eligibility for subsidized federal loans and expanding access to the federal Pell Grant for formerly incarcerated students while increasing funding toward the program. However, grants and aid will no longer consider the number of students a family has enrolled in an institution of higher education for increased assistance. Despite promises and instruction under the FAFSA Simplification Act, this year’s FAFSA does not adjust for inflation when calculating how much a family’s income should be used to decide financial aid eligibility. Consequently, lack of aid adjustment considering inflation could cost students $1.8 billion in federal student aid.   

The current limits and lack of accessibility will only further hinder students’ ability to receive maximum aid benefits to support their education. Without the aid administered through FAFSA, a decline in college enrollment can be expected. The National College Attainment Network reports that FAFSA submissions for the class of 2024 were down by 57 percent compared to last year’s seniors. The FAFSA delays have shed light on a festering issue that students have had to contend with: unaffordable and unattainable postsecondary higher education due to unnecessary inflation in tuition and other costs of attendance.  

The current FAFSA technical difficulties serve as a subtle warning of a broader crisis—the staggering rise in college tuition expenses. While the increase in the Pell Grant allocation is a positive development, Congress and the Department of Education must take into account inflation and the increasing cost of college education. Unfortunately, Pell Grants only cover a small, and shrinking, share of college costs for students who receive them, even with the new increase in funding. Significantly increasing Pell Grant funding is imperative to bridge the ever-expanding gap in rising college costs; allocating a mere fraction of college tuition is insufficient to truly alleviate the financial burden on students. A substantial increase in Pell Grant funding and allocation to students is imperative to ensure meaningful access and affordability for all aspiring learners. 

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, it is crucial that the FAFSA application portal is updated and functioning in accordance with the FAFSA Simplification Act and that comprehensive measures are taken to address the overarching issue of college affordability.