Weekly Columns

Arkansas high school seniors are busy planning for the future. As they study for Advanced Placement exams, buy their final yearbook and anticipate graduation celebrations, many pursuing higher education are filling out financial aid paperwork to help pay for the skyrocketing costs of college.

More than 17 million students annually complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to get crucial information about financial support eligibility from schools. This is a critical component for undergraduates in selecting where they will study.  

In past years, the application process was lengthy and complex, which posed a significant barrier for prospective students and led Congress to make changes. In 2020, lawmakers authorized the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) to simplify the application with the goal of encouraging young adults to realize the dream of obtaining a college degree.

While the number of questions considerably decreased from 108 to 36, there has been little else to applaud. Typically, the FAFSA form is available on October 1. However, DoEd’s rollout of the new process for the 2024-2025 school year has been a failure. The form wasn’t accessible until January 6 after a week of intermittent availability. This delay, and additional technical glitches, is leaving applicants with little time to review financial aid offers before having to make a final decision on where to attend. 

In recent weeks, Arkansas college leaders and financial aid administrators have shared their concerns about the troubling impact these hurdles will have on the those considering registering for the fall semester and the potential negative impact on enrollment numbers.

This chaos has forced some colleges nationwide to extend admissions deadlines so students have more time to make the decision that best meets their needs. 

Just as problematic is a disadvantage many children of rural communities will face. The revised method for calculating financial aid assistance requires these families disclose agricultural business assets. Farm assets can range well into the millions of dollars, with the price of a combine harvester alone often exceeding $400,000. 

Changes to the needs analysis formula unfairly penalize farm families and could significantly cut financial aid eligibility for rural students.

The new FAFSA question misunderstands how these hardworking men and women operate. Farm assets cannot be cashed out to support a loan in the same capacity as traditional investments, so the cost of these tools should be exempt from calculating student aid.

Bipartisan efforts in the Senate and House of Representatives are underway to overturn this misguided rule. 

As families struggle to navigate the new FAFSA form, we’re working to hold the administration accountable. In early February, I joined a bipartisan group of colleagues in demanding answers from the DoEd Secretary about cuts to college aid for the children of agriculture producers. We need to know who the department consulted from rural communities to create the new guidance, if anyone at all.

The Government Accountability Office has also launched an investigation into this debacle. This is a good step that will deliver transparency and help prevent more students from experiencing the current setbacks.

Many scholars depend on financial aid to afford college. We have a responsibility to ensure they have access to this vital support that allows them to build a foundation for success.