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Local students, families concerned amid bumpy rollout for new FAFSA application

Bumpy rollout of 2024 FAFSA has students, parents worrying about paying for school
Bumpy rollout of 2024 FAFSA has students, parents worrying about paying for school 03:27

MERION STATION, Pa. (CBS) -- Picking a college and paying for it is stressful enough for high school students and their families, but this year, that process is even harder. They're attempting to navigate a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and the rollout has been anything but smooth.

The new FAFSA is meant to make applying for federal student aid easier. For example, in the past, students would have to answer more than 100 questions and track down income information. Now, there are only two to three dozen questions and an automatic exchange of income information with the IRS.

Seniors at Merion Mercy Academy cannot wait to make the biggest decision of their young lives so far - which college or university they'll attend in the fall.

"I love the University of Pittsburgh," Jonae Thomas said.

"I like High Point University in North Carolina," Lauren Lindsay added.

"My top two are Villanova and Georgetown," Jada Boose said. "I can just see myself at those schools."

But in order to commit, they need to know what federal aid is available.

"It's become the number one topic at the dinner table," Thomas said. "Money is a big determining factor in where I go to school. So, not knowing that is adding to our anxiety a lot."

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These ladies join millions of students across the country left in limbo after the Department of Education rolled out an updated FAFSA. The launch was riddled with technical difficulties.

"When my mom was trying to get into FAFSA, she couldn't get in for the first five maybe six times she tried," Boose said.

"I couldn't even submit anything at first because it wouldn't let me enter my basic information," Lindsay added.

Then schools learned of another delay. The DOE missed a crucial inflation adjustment.

"To ensure students weren't short changed when it came to federal aid - it's $1.8 billion in additional federal financial aid that is now available to students and families," Joseph Howard, the vice president for enrollment at Widener University, explained.

The complications and delays mean colleges and universities won't get student FAFSA information until mid-March, according to the DOE.

In turn, schools like Widener don't expect to be able to offer aid packages to students until April.

"Students who rely on this important need-based financial aid are the ones potentially disadvantaged by this process," Howard said. "And so, what we don't want to have is a circumstance where a student is feeling pressured to comitt to a college without having full financial information from all the colleges they're considering ... It's a lot of pressure to put on students and families to make a critical, life-altering decision with a few weeks or a few days notice."

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In fairness to its prospective students, Widener has suspended its May 1 decision deadline, typically considered National College Decision Day.

"We're really hopeful other schools will follow suit," Merion Mercy College Counselor Allison Hoffmann said.

"It's like tough seeing people commit to schools," Lindsay said. "And its like, already? Because I feel so behind."

Hoffmann is urging her students to be patient and asking them to fill out the FAFSA if they haven't already.

More families are expected to be eligible for financial aid through the new FAFSA. But according to the DOE, as of mid-February, only about 4 million forms have been successfully submitted. Typically, more than 17 million students use FAFSA every year.

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