Whether you’re a high school senior headed to college this fall, a current college student or a parent of either, you may have encountered difficulties this year as you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA.
A new version of the form, intended to be easier to fill out and provide more students with financial aid, debuted this academic year. But it’s been a frustrating process from the start, with glitches and delays, both for students and colleges.
Now, the latest delay, announced by the U.S. Department of Education last week, could have even more significant and sweeping impacts, as it pushes the date by which colleges are supposed to receive students’ financial information to mid-March.
That’s several months later than the usual timeline, in which colleges could receive the information by November, and it means students likely won’t receive financial aid offers from the schools until April — just weeks before May 1, when most colleges ask students to declare their enrollment.
“We’ve been working very, very hard for the past year to try to prepare for every scenario,” UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Provost for Enrollment Rachelle Feldman told The News & Observer. “I’m not sure mid-March was a scenario we really had in mind. But we are as poised as we can be to move quickly.”
How are North Carolina colleges handling the delays, and what will they mean for students? Will free tuition programs — like those now being offered by UNC and Duke University — be affected? And could colleges push their traditional enrollment deadlines to accommodate for the delays?
The N&O spoke to financial aid and enrollment leaders at UNC, NC State University, Duke and the UNC System office to understand how the delays could affect North Carolina students.
Here’s what to know.
What’s new with the FAFSA this year?
Overall, the FAFSA is now intended to be easier and simpler to fill out for students and their families.
The Federal Student Aid (FSA) office, part of the U.S. Department of Education, says filling out the form could take less than 10 minutes and require students to fill out as few as 18 questions — down significantly from the 100-plus questions on the previous version of the application.
After filling out the form, students and their families will see a new measure of their ability to pay for college.
The new Student Aid Index, which replaces the previously used Estimated Family Contribution, is “an eligibility index number that your college’s or career school’s financial aid office uses to determine how much federal student aid you would receive if you attended the school.” Colleges determine students’ financial aid need by subtracting an applicant’s SAI from the cost of attending that college.
The new FAFSA will also expand eligibility for financial aid, including Pell Grants, a type of federal aid that is awarded only to students with “exceptional financial need” and does not have to be repaid. FSA estimates about 610,000 additional students from low-income backgrounds will be eligible for Pell Grants as a result of updates to how student aid calculations are being made under the new form.
“I think that the new, simpler FAFSA will be really great for students and families in the long run,” Feldman said. “But this year has been incredibly frustrating with the delays and the delays in communication.”
When are colleges expected to receive students’ FAFSA info?
Following the initial one-year delay in implementing the FAFSA Simplification Act, this year’s roll-out of the new form has hardly been smooth sailing.
The form didn’t open until late December last year, almost three months later than the typical Oct. 1 launch date — and when it did open, students and families were locked out of the form for several hours each day.
Now, colleges are on the receiving end of another significant delay.
Instead of receiving students’ FAFSA information in the fall, colleges are now expected to begin receiving the information from the Department of Education “in the first half of March.”
Wes Armstrong, the UNC System’s director of financial operations and technology, said in a normal year, most colleges typically begin receiving FAFSA data by the end of October or the beginning of November. They typically begin the process of determining and awarding student aid by running small batches of data through their computer systems, he said.
“So they’re running on a five, five-and-a-half month delay from their normal processing,” Armstrong said.
Students would usually receive notice of their financial aid offers a few months later, often coinciding with colleges releasing their admissions decisions.
“For us at Carolina, it was really important to us that on the same day a student was admitted, we could give them information about their financial aid and their scholarships,” Feldman said. “So we’ve already passed our first early admission day, and it’s been frustrating not to be able to do that.”
When will students receive their financial aid offers from NC colleges?
Between the time that colleges receive students’ FAFSA information and the time they can inform students of their financial aid offers, colleges will have to work to test the data — like they do in a normal year — and ensure their computer systems work properly with the new Student Aid Index and other factors.
“We prep the system as much as we can with the information we have, but until we have a volume of records that are giving us the various different scenarios of students and their certain circumstances and situations, it’s hard to know if we’ve gotten it right,” Don Hunt, NC State’s senior vice provost for enrollment management and services, said.
The delay and the need to test the data mean students likely won’t receive their financial aid offers until April.
Even with that general expectation, though, the exact timing of offers remains to be seen, and it could vary from college to college.
Armstrong said the delays will impact each of the 16 public universities in the UNC System slightly differently, depending on how many students each school enrolls and how much financial aid those students qualify for, among other factors.
Hunt and Feldman said they hoped their respective universities — NC State and UNC — could provide financial aid offers to their students close to the start of April, but acknowledged the timing would depend on exactly when they receive students’ information from the Department of Education.
“It really comes down to: We don’t know what we don’t know. Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to really test all of these new changes,” Hunt said. “We’re assuming it will go as smoothly as it has been in the past — which, if they get it to us March 1, we should be able to turn it around by April 1.”
Is there a way to estimate how much financial aid you’ll get?
If you’re waiting for a college to give you a financial aid offer, there are ways to estimate the amount of aid you’ll get and receive other support in the meantime.
Colleges should provide an online Net Price Calculator that students and their families can use to estimate how much they’ll be expected to pay to attend that particular school.
UNC’s calculator is available at: studentaid.unc.edu/net-price-calculator
NC State’s calculator is available at: npc.collegeboard.org/app/ncsu
You can search for additional calculators for any school at collegecost.ed.gov/net-price
If you need help filling out the FAFSA or have questions about the financial aid process, try reaching out to the financial aid offices at the colleges you’re applying to — or at the college that’s closest to you.
“Whichever campus is closest to you, I guarantee you, would be happy to help,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t have to be your number one option.”
What about the CSS Profile?
Even with the FAFSA-related delays, some schools may still make financial aid offers on time.
Locally, Duke University expects that to be the case — largely because of the CSS Profile, a separate application for financial aid run by the College Board, the organization that also runs the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
The CSS Profile, short for College Scholarship Service Profile, is generally used by private colleges and those with large endowments, U.S. News & World Report says. It is a helpful tool for colleges to offer nonfederal aid and other scholarships.
“Duke anticipates still being able to make our aid offers to undergraduates on time despite the FAFSA delay,” Miranda McCall, Duke’s associate vice provost & director of the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support, said in a statement. “Since our total grant guarantees are based on the CSS Profile, students will still know how much support they can receive from Duke.”
Some schools, including UNC and Duke, request that students fill out both the FAFSA and CSS Profile. But the CSS Profile may not provide a full-enough picture for some schools to make a financial aid offer without also considering the FAFSA.
“The CSS Profile gives us a good general idea of where families are, but given how dependent we are on Pell Grants and other federal aid, at this point, we don’t feel confident going out without the FAFSA,” Feldman, of UNC, said. “So, it is a waiting game.”
McCall said “students can enroll at Duke with confidence, even with the FAFSA delay.”
“Later this spring, once we receive the FAFSA from the Department of Education, we’ll update the aid offers with the official sources of our total grant guarantee, including state and federal funds tied to the FAFSA,” McCall said. “If students don’t qualify for state or federal funds, we’ll still honor our aid offers through institutional resources.”
How are free tuition programs, like those at UNC and Duke, impacted by the delays?
McCall said Duke’s ability to offer financial aid on time extends to the university’s new program to offer free tuition to some students. That offer applies to students from North Carolina and South Carolina whose families make $150,000 or less per year.
Duke applicants should indicate their state of residency on the CSS Profile to be considered for the offer.
The situation is more complicated at UNC and across the public UNC System, which both also offer programs to cover some students’ tuition costs.
Beginning with the incoming class of first-year students this fall, UNC will fully cover tuition costs for North Carolina students whose families make less than $80,000 per year. The university also offers several other tuition assistance programs, including the Carolina Covenant, which offers students the opportunity to graduate from the university debt-free, if they are from families whose income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.
UNC won’t make those offers without students’ FAFSA data, Feldman said.
“We really feel like, because we’re working with taxpayer money here at Carolina — we’re so dependent and grateful to the state for that — and then with our donor money, that we really need to see the full picture and be accurate when we go out with those awards,” Feldman said.
Similarly, students attending any school in the UNC System could also be eligible for the new Next NC Scholarship, which offers university scholarships up to $5,000 to North Carolina students whose families have an annual income of $80,000 or less.
Because those scholarships combine state aid and Pell Grant funds to provide the full $5,000, Armstrong said, awarding students those funds relies on colleges receiving FAFSA data — and can’t happen without it.
“The state will also be receiving copies of those FAFSAs at the same time the schools are, and figuring out how much each student gets,” Armstrong said.
Will NC colleges push their enrollment deadlines?
Colleges typically ask students to choose the school they want to attend and enroll by May 1 each year.
But with students receiving their financial aid offers from colleges months later than normal, several national organizations representing admissions counselors, financial aid leaders and other related professions have called on colleges nationwide to push that deadline, citing the short time a May 1 decision gives students and their families to consider and compare the amount of aid they’d receive from different colleges.
“How can they commit, you know? Even if they love the university, they’ll be scared to commit, because what if they can’t pay the bill?” Feldman said. “And the worst thing would be to feel like they would start college and not be able to finish because of finances.”
Some colleges have already taken the step to postpone their enrollment deadlines. But will North Carolina colleges do the same?
Armstrong said the UNC System isn’t “actively taking a stance” on whether universities in the system should move the May 1 deadline “just yet.”
“All 16 universities have different needs and different students,” Armstrong said. “So that one is a bit trickier to say, ‘As a system we should all do X.’”
Feldman said it would be “premature” for UNC to move its enrollment deadline, but said the university would be flexible and work with students who may need extra time to make a decision about where to enroll.
“I do think that if there were individual students or groups of students who hadn’t yet heard about their aid, we would extend the deadline for them,” Feldman said. “We don’t want anyone to be in a position where they’re making that decision blind to their financial position.”
NC State has not made a decision to move its enrollment deadline, Hunt said.
“We’re evaluating our opportunities and figuring out how to support students,” he said.
Hunt said moving the May 1 deadline at NC State could create more headaches for later points in the enrollment and registration process for students. For example, new students typically begin registering for classes in June.
“At some point, something’s going to get so crunched that it’s still going to impact students in a negative way, potentially,” Hunt said. “So we’re really going to have to be flexible.”
Can you still fill out the FAFSA?
Yes. The FAFSA is available to fill out online at studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid. If you are currently enrolled in college, or will be enrolling this fall, it’s a good idea to fill out the form as soon as you can.
The deadline to fill out the form for the 2024-25 year is June 30, 2025, but filling it out before then helps colleges give you a financial aid offer more quickly.
Students applying to any UNC System school who wish to be considered for the Next NC Scholarship should complete the form by June 1, 2024.