Submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can be an essential component to affording college, even with some states freezing tuition. A recent change to this application, however, made it look like some students were millionaires overnight. And while the sudden riches may have only been on paper, the mistake wasn't without consequence. According to NJ.com, some 165,000 students may have lost out on federal student aid due to the error.
The problem, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, likely occurred because of a change the government made to the form. Specifically, this year's version of the form had been expanded to accommodate higher incomes and assets. Some students apparently misunderstood the purpose of a few additional boxes to the right of the decimal point and entered their entire income to the left. Therefore, an annual income of $25,000.00 quickly became $2,500,000.00. As The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, the mistake was identified by an administrator who handles the forms. Now workers at the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid, including the department's policy liason, Jeff Baker, are rushing to come up with a solution.
"It's a serious problem," Mr. Baker said at a recent meeting. "We have to fix it."
Baker estimates that the majority of colleges have at least one student affected by the error, while some schools could have hundreds of students losing out on federal aid at the moment. Now schools must begin the painstaking process of going over individual FAFSA forms and reprocessing them, then notifying students of any changes to their eligibility.
While this laborious activity might seem like a hassle to schools, it must be done in order to ensure all students are getting the aid they deserve and qualify for. As Bloomberg pointed out, the stakes are high for students who rely on this aid to get by.
"It can make the difference between a student qualifying for need-based grants and not qualifying," Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of several college financial-aid websites, told Bloomberg.
Kantrowitz said that this kind of problem isn't a new one, which is why he advises students to ignore cents and focus on whole dollar amounts when applying for any type of aid or filling out any college-related forms.
FAFSA applications will start being reprocessed by mid-July, and administrators hope to identify and fix any financial aid errors by July 21st. Fortunately, all eligible students will still have access to federal money.
However, the solution may not come as easily when it comes to student aid coming directly from schools. Colleges who have already handed out the aid they have allocated for this year could run into problems if they run into a considerable number of errors on the forms. At this time, it is unknown how much this error will impact individual colleges.
Compiled by Holly Johnson
"Apply for Financial Aid. Become a Millionaire on Paper," Bloomberg, July 7, 2014, Suzanne Woolley
"FAFSA confusion: College students lose financial aid due to decimal point error on application," New Jersey Online, July 4, 2014, Kelly Heyboer
"Problem With Online Fafsa Makes Some Low-Income Filers Look Like Millionaires," The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2014, Kelly Field