This Year, ED Is Keeping Up With Financial-Aid Applications

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Determinations of eligibility for federal financial aid appear to be running on schedule this year, much to the relief of college-bound students and administrators who were inconvenienced by delays last year.

The Department of Education oversees the processing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, a form that determines a student's eligibility for federal grants or loans. As of April 11, the department reported that it had received more than 5 million applications, and it had processed 92 percent of the paper FAFSAs and 100 percent of the electronic applications. Subscribe to Education Week Newspaper

The numbers represent a vast improvement over the situation in spring 1996, when technical glitches and the lingering effects of federal government shutdowns had resulted in a backlog in processing applications.

"It's been light-years' worth of difference," said Paul Hill, the development manager for the Education Department division that oversees FAFSA processing.

Many college officials feared last year that the backlog would disrupt their schedules for making financial-aid offers to students and receiving responses. A handful of schools moved back their May 1 acceptance deadlines, the traditional date by which a student must accept or decline a school's offer to enroll. ("Despite Federal Aid Backlog, Colleges Retain Deadline," April 17, 1996.)

To prevent the problem from recurring in the current school year, the department began its earliest-ever distribution of the FAFSA to high schools in mid-October. It also introduced an automated system for ordering FAFSAs.

In addition, the department has encouraged students to file electronic applications using a Windows-based computer program known as the FAFSA Express, in which students transmit financial data by modem directly to the department. This year, the department began offering a "save to diskette" function that allows schools to download FAFSA Express from the Internet's World Wide Web.

In June, the department also plans to launch an interactive on-line Internet application called FAFSA on the Web, which will not require downloading of any software.

No Delays Reported

Counselors appear to be pleased with the way FAFSA processing is humming along this spring.

Last year, in response to the FAFSA delay, the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling surveyed its members to find out if they were pushing back their May 1 deadlines.

This year, according to NACAC Executive Director Joyce Smith, the organization didn't do a survey because there did not appear to be any delays. Ms. Smith said she had not heard complaints from any schools or students about processing or distribution of the forms.

One of a handful of schools that compensated for last year's backlog by moving its acceptance deadline to May 15 was Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va. This year, said Bob MacDonald, the college's associate dean for financial aid, the deadline is once again May 1.

"We did not have the interruptions this year that we had last year," Mr. MacDonald said.

Ms. Smith praised the Education Department for improving FAFSA processing. "The pressure now is on the kids to make the decisions; that's about it," she said.

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