Georgia colleges hustle after federal delay slows financial aid process

Oglethorpe University will create two financial aid packages for prospective students because of the delay in launching a federal financial aid form. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Oglethorpe University will create two financial aid packages for prospective students because of the delay in launching a federal financial aid form. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

It may take a bit longer than usual for some students to get financial aid offers from Georgia colleges.

That’s because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which typically opens Oct. 1, didn’t launch until Dec. 30 due to an application redesign intended to streamline the form and make more low-income students, including an additional 16,463 in Georgia, eligible for federal Pell Grants.

The holdup frustrated families trying to complete the form during the winter break and prompted some schools to warn it will take longer to notify students of how much financial help they stand to receive for the 2024-2025 year. That information is vital for many high school seniors to decide which college they’ll attend and for returning college students who must submit the form each year to continue receiving federal student aid.

Berry College, the private liberal arts school near Rome, typically starts sending out financial aid offers in December, according to Andrew Bressette, vice president for enrollment management.

“With the delayed FAFSA, we don’t think those will be able to go out until February at the very earliest,” he said in a statement.

Berry provided families with estimated numbers if they had entered information into the U.S. Department of Education’s online estimator tool.

In the first days of the new FAFSA’s “soft launch,” students could access the online form only in limited windows. The Education Department has since made the site available full-time.

In a normal year, once a student files the FAFSA, it takes “a couple of days” for schools to receive the processed form, said Karen McCarthy, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ vice president of public policy and federal relations. This year, the Education Department has said it will provide that data, used by many colleges to build financial aid offers, “in late January.”

The stalled FAFSA release is creating a domino effect down the application and enrollment timeline, McCarthy said.

Many competitive colleges set the regular decision application deadline in early January. Schools notify students of admission decisions around March. Financial aid offer letters — critical to helping students understand how much they’ll pay and to comparing schools for the most affordable option — often go out at roughly the same time as admissions decisions, though it depends on the school and other variables.

Selective colleges require students to decide where they’re going and pay a deposit by May 1, a deadline some education advocates are pushing to extend this year to support students trying to finalize their plans.

Oglethorpe University, the private school in Brookhaven, said the delayed availability of FAFSA has impacted the number of incoming students who can make a deposit to secure a place for next fall.

An Oglethorpe spokesman said it is responding to the setback by sending out financial aid packages to students twice. The first financial aid notification will provide information on merit-based scholarships students would earn if they enroll, while the second notification will arrive after an applicant completes the FAFSA and will provide details on additional need-based aid.

“We’re small enough to be able to create financial aid packages for prospective students twice, and we are willing to make the extra effort to give students and their families as much information as possible,” wrote spokesman Lance Wallace in an email. Oglethorpe has about 1,500 students, and 99% receive some kind of financial aid.

Atlanta’s Emory University said financial aid notifications to incoming first-year and returning undergraduate students won’t be delayed. But the university cautioned financial aid offers could be postponed by “a few weeks” for some newly admitted graduate and professional students.

The FAFSA delay “is not ideal,” wrote John Leach, associate vice provost for enrollment and financial aid, in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He added: “but since these delays will be experienced for all students across the nation, we do not anticipate this creating any significant issues (for Emory students specifically).”

So far, Georgia Tech is not changing any of its deadlines by which students must apply for financial aid, though the school “will keep a close eye on what our students need to make an informed decision,” said Paul Kohn, vice provost for enrollment management, in a statement. He urged students to complete applications as soon as they can and to “be patient as financial aid professionals do all they can to award aid packages as soon as possible.”

The University of Georgia didn’t say whether the late launch of FAFSA would delay financial aid letters. In a statement, spokesman Greg Trevor said that UGA is “closely monitoring the challenges related to navigating the rollout. We are going to be as flexible as possible to ensure students and their families have access to the federal assistance that they are eligible to receive.”

The slow FAFSA rollout will give Achieve Atlanta less time to assist Atlanta Public Schools students applying to college. The organization, which awards need-based scholarships to Atlanta students based on the FAFSA, said it’s been providing more training to advisers who help students with the form.

Achieve Atlanta spokeswoman Vett Petty said they also stepped up communication with students and families. The scholarship deadlines haven’t moved, however. Applications will open Feb. 1 and close May 31.

“We are preparing for colleges and universities to offer financial aid offers later than usual, which will shorten the time for students to review their offers and make final college decisions,” Petty wrote in an email.