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FAFSA fiasco: WKU students, parents, and administrators navigate the government's bungled overhaul of financial aid

Warren County Senior Anna Scott has completed the FAFSA process and will attend WKU in the fall.
Lisa Autry
Warren County Senior Anna Scott has completed the FAFSA process and will attend WKU in the fall.

The bungled rollout of a new federal student aid form has left students in Kentucky and across the nation in limbo, some wondering if their college dreams will become reality. Western Kentucky University became the first four-year public institution in the state to make award offers for the fall semester, but thousands of notifications are still pending as students face crunch time for making their college choices.

Normally a time of celebration for high school seniors, this spring has been marred by the federal government's botched rollout of the new FAFSA application. By May 1, students usually know where they're headed to college in the fall. This year, most still haven't received financial aid offers.

And three months before the start of fall classes, many don't know where they're going to college, or how they're going to pay for it.

“This has been a complete debacle at the federal level and the people who are going to pay for it are young people and their families because of the uncertainty it creates around college going," said Western Kentucky University President Timothy Caboni.

WKU school issued its first award notifications for the fall semester in April, months later than students typically received financial aid offers.

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, went through a massive overhaul that was supposed to make it simpler and shorter. But a series of blundersby the Education Department made it harder than ever, delaying college decisions and raising fears that some students will forgo college entirely.

Events like "FAFSA Fiesta" aim to get students to complete the new application

Colleges are pulling out all the stops to assist students with completing their FAFSA forms. Joanna Furlong, a WKU elementary education major, stopped by an event in April at the WKU Glasgow campus called "FAFSA Fiesta." Latin music played in the background as she walked along a taco bar set up in a computer lab.

“We have taco, nachos, and desserts", she said. "I think it’s a great opportunity because it brings in more people and makes them feel comfortable that other people are here eating and having a pretty good time.”

Furlong is heading into her fourth year at WKU and has lots of experience completing FAFSA applications. But this year everybody is a stranger to the form. That’s why events like FAFSA Fiesta are so important, especially to incoming freshman.

Navigating FAFSA now requires extra perseverance

Tori Murley with the Educational Opportunity Center at the WKU Glasgow campus helped a first-generation college student from Barren County High School with the online FAFSA.

The student tried to log-in with her personal information and hit a roadblock. A message popped up, saying “unknown error.”

"A lot of times, we have to close out of the browser and open it back up. There’s no way to fix it," explained Murley. "I think sometimes the website has a lot of glitches that make it unnecessarily difficult.”

WKU-Glasgow EOC Coordinator Tori Murley (center) assists a graduating high school senior and her mother with completing the FAFSA.
Lisa Autry
WKU-Glasgow EOC Coordinator Tori Murley (center) assists a graduating high school senior and her mother with completing the FAFSA.

Murley and the incoming freshman tred another computer and a different browser, but get the same error message. There are fears that such frustrations could prompt some students, especially the most vulnerable, to give up completely on the process.

A few minutes later, the Barren County student gains access to the online application. Within ten minutes, she learns that her colleges hopes aren’t dashed.

“We have your results from your FAFSA," Murley told the student. "It does say you’re eligible for a full Pell grant which is $7,395. You should also get the state CAP grant which is an additional $5,300. Should be enough to cover your tuition.”

Once a student files the application, the U.S. Department of Education processes the information and sends it to colleges and universities. Schools then use that information to determine eligibility for federal, state, and institutional aid. Last year, Kentucky students received nearly $400 million in Pell grants from the federal government and more than $200 million in lottery-funded scholarships from the state.

WKU Financial Aid Director Bryson Davis said the new FAFSA application and formula has made more Kentuckians eligible for need-based aid.

"With the new federal methodology, we are seeing an increase in Pell-eligible students, and here at Western we expect to see a 27%-29% increase in Pell-eligible students," Davis explained.

But across the U.S., the number of students who have successfully submitted the FAFSA is down 29% from this time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network. In Kentucky, the FAFSA completion rate is just over 36% among the high school class of 2024. That’s down more than 25% compared to this time last year.

WKU postponed its scholarship acceptance deadline from May 1 to May 15.

“We’ve managed to do well at getting our financial aid offers out, but we don’t think the full information is there for every student because other institutions haven’t been able to get theirs out," said WKU President Timothy Caboni.

In the first batch of records the university received from the federal government, more than half of first-time applications contained an error based on U.S. Department of Education calculations or data.

That only allowed WKU to make its first round of award notifications to 1,500 students. Those offers went out on April 11. In typical years, WKU notifies students by February about how much financial aid they can expect to receive.

Still, WKU was the first among Kentucky’s other four-year public universities to make financial aid offers under the new form. The federal Education Department has reprocessed the applications contained errors and WKU anticipates award notifications reaching all students by the end of next week.

The impact on one Warren County family

Warren County Senior Anna Scott was among those first 1,500 students to be notified by WKU. While FAFSA forms are typically available to students in October, Anna couldn’t apply until January.

“I feel like everybody’s college plans this year are very last-minute because we got the FAFSA so late," Scott said. “It was a little annoying at first because every time I went to set up the account I would be stopped at what my address was. I was like, 'I know my address and I don’t know why I can’t continue further.' It took a couple days and then it loaded and everything worked okay."

Anna, 18, will graduate from South Warren High School this month and plans to study public relations at WKU in the fall. While her college decision came later than hoped, her mother Pam Scott relates to families still in limbo.

“We had her enrolled in multiple places," said Scott. "You can’t commit 100% until you know what you’re getting or where you’re going to be financially. That’s the hard part.”

The FAFSA has been the linchpin of student financial aid for decades. It’s also long been maligned for being difficult and intimidating to families without college experience. While the new form reduced the number of questions and expanded aid to more students, the FAFSA is still living up to its reputation.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.