How The Ed Department Fumbled The FAFSA Revamp | Crooked Media
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February 20, 2024
What A Day
How The Ed Department Fumbled The FAFSA Revamp

In This Episode

  • The U.S. vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and stood alone on the 15-member U.N. Security Council in its vote. To understand the veto and the current state of hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas, we spoke with The Intercept’s Prem Thakker.
  • A newly-overhauled website for FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is not working as intended and it’s creating chaos for students applying for college. Left in the dark about the size of their aid packages, some students don’t know which schools they can afford. We discuss what the Department of Education says they’re doing about it.
  • And in headlines: two men were charged in last week’s shooting at a Kansas City Super Bowl victory parade, librarians could be under attack in West Virginia, and Bridgit Mendler rides the Disney-Channel-star-to-CEO pipeline.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Wednesday, February 21st. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson. And this is What a Day. The perfect pod for your drive to the first day of the Conservative conference CPAC. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Or uh, better yet, your drive away from CPAC. If you are trying to escape, let us be your soundtrack. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: We know you need a soundtrack because it’s a lot of foolishness coming out of there. Okay. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Stay far away. Listen to our show on a loop. We got you. [music break]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, the fumbled overhaul of Fafsa applications for student aid has pushed back admissions for some colleges and students. Plus, Kansas City authorities charged two men for the mass shooting at last week’s Super Bowl parade. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: But first, yesterday the United States vetoed a resolution from the United Nations for an immediate cease fire in Gaza. Here is the US’s ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, explaining that the US said no because she believed it would disrupt the negotiations to free the hostages who were taken from Israel. 

 

[clip of Linda Thomas-Greenfield] Any action this Council takes right now should help, not hinder, these sensitive and ongoing negotiations. And we believe that the resolution on the table right now would, in fact, negatively impact those negotiations. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: The resolution, which was proposed by Algeria, included a warning about Israel’s deadly military operations in Rafah, which we’ve been covering here on the show. 13 other council members voted in favor of it, while Britain abstained from the vote. It’s not a surprising move by the U.S. it’s actually the third such veto of a draft resolution since October 7th. But it definitely stands in contrast with the Biden administration’s increasingly critical response to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, as well as their growing frustrations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To dig into more of the details here. I spoke earlier with Prem Thakker. He is a reporter at The Intercept and has been closely covering the war in Gaza. I started by asking him to explain why the U.S. vetoed the resolution, and to explain more about the ongoing hostage negotiations. 

 

Prem Thakker: Yeah, so they were against it for a few reasons. One, it went against their ongoing negotiations to try to free the hostages that Hamas took on October 7th. I think part of that as well is because they introduced an alternative resolution. So this alternative resolution that they introduced used the word ceasefire for the first time, that the US is officially using it in such a way, but they’re demanding a temporary ceasefire and one that can be achieved, quote, “as soon as practicable,” which is not very usual familiar language for resolutions like this, a premise that many people are operating from is that any sort of secondary or tertiary provisions related to pursuing peace can’t really happen before violence stops. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: How does this vote align with a larger strategy by the administration, especially given the White House’s increasingly vocal criticisms of Israel’s actions in Gaza, as well as the Israeli army’s latest offensive in Rafah that’s going on? 

 

Prem Thakker: Certainly, the Biden administration’s rhetoric has evolved over the past like four months, but at the same time, materially, not much has changed at all. Throughout this entire affair, the United States has been pretty antagonistic towards where most of the rest of the world is on what’s going on in Gaza. As soon as October 18th, when there was about 3500 people in Gaza that were killed and the US vetoed a U.N. resolution that was for a humanitarian pause, not even a cease fire. December 8th, when there was about 17,000 people killed, the US vetoed another ceasefire and hostage release resolution. Um and December 22nd, after numerous delays by the United States for a UN resolution just to increase humanitarian aid. The U.S. finally approved a, so to speak, allowing the resolution to pass by just abstaining, not even voting in favor of it. And they still took credit for it. And that’s just a few of numerous other U.N. resolutions that the United States has voted against or delayed or watered down. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: You know, you’ve been at these press conferences in person with U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller and John Kirby. How would you say that the department’s message has changed since October 7th, you know, what are you seeing there?

 

Prem Thakker: In some as you look at a lot of these answers, many people aren’t really satisfied because there seems to be many sort of contradictions in how the U.S. is responding. I mean, one basic example is that it was so quick to suspend funding to UNWRA, which is the UN agency that helps support Palestinian refugees, on of course troubling allegations that, albeit a very small amount of its staff may have been involved in the atrocities of October 7th versus for instance, the fact that even the International Court of Justice has affirmed that the Israeli government might be committing genocide. And yet there is no sort of similar caution to money that we are sending to that government. And so, over and over again, these spokespeople are are asked these sorts of questions. And surely over time, their answers have developed or or you’ve kind of seen an opening into the idea that, you know, we are more concerned or in fact, we are looking into that or making more hardline stances on what should and should not be allowed. But nonetheless, again words only go so far. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. You mentioned earlier that the Biden administration wouldn’t even use the term ceasefire up until very recently. I wanted to ask about Congress, how are lawmakers there speaking about this war and a ceasefire? How have you seen that evolve over time? 

 

Prem Thakker: It’s hard to keep track of 530 odd something members of Congress and their stances on what’s going on. And the last I tracked, there were about 66 members of Congress who have called for an immediate ceasefire along the lines of let’s stop the violence first, and then we can navigate the rest of these things. There have been more members of Congress who have used the word ceasefire, but they’ve attached certain conditions to them that have thus far justified the current campaign. So, for instance, some members of Congress say we have to have a cease fire, and that includes eliminating or destroying or getting rid of Hamas. That is where you get sort of a moderate amount of people in Congress who are indeed using the word ceasefire, but are not fully calling for an immediate end to the current violence to then figure out how we can pursue peace. So that’s sort of the dynamics on the Democratic side of things. Of course, on the Republican side of things, it’s much more interested in violence and much more committed and unabashedly interested in removing Hamas. And often, of course, some members of Congress not really differentiating between the idea of a Palestinian human being and then someone who may or may not even be involved in Hamas and Hamas itself. There’s no sort of scaling or gradation for many of these Republicans. There are certainly a lot more members of Congress then, of course, people within the administration itself calling for a ceasefire. But of course, neither of which necessarily is proportional to poll after poll, which shows majorities of all sorts of groups, even Republicans and Independents, especially Independents, who are much more interested in an end to this violence. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: What can we expect to see next in terms of peace talk efforts, movement towards a ceasefire? Where do we go from here? 

 

Prem Thakker: So the U.S. has said that they’re in the middle of negotiations right now, which is one of their justifications for why they didn’t necessarily support this resolution of a full on ceasefire. And, of course, they have their alternative resolution that they have proposed. It’s not quite clear how much of a rush there is to pass this resolution. Surely the language is indeed shifting based on the increasing sort of demands by more and more people in this country, no less across the world. I’ve talked to a lot of folks that within Congress and within the administration have said that indeed, despite us not seeing exactly how it works in public, that they and their bosses and their coworkers have seen so much public pressure and so much public just discourse and dialog generally about this in a way that many other US involved foreign affairs have not. All to say that on one hand, there are trends that you and I have discussed about, you know, how the US is behaving on the stage of the UN, for instance, but in some ways a lot is up in the air and there’s no guarantee of how things go with this or with anything of course. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That was my conversation with Prem Thakker of The Intercept. We will link to some of his work in our show notes. As far as updates from the ground in Gaza. Yesterday, Israel’s military ordered evacuations in two neighborhoods of Gaza City, which is a city in northern Gaza that was an initial target in Israel’s military operation. The evacuation notice told people in these areas to go to an area west of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, which is the location of the most intense fighting and bombing in Gaza at this point in the war. The UN also suspended food deliveries in northern Gaza, citing looting, gunfire and chaos that their teams have faced, a decision that they say was not made lightly because of the implications it could have on an already starving population, we’ll of course continue to follow this in the coming days. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Thank you for that, Priyanka. Now on to a story impacting tens of millions of families in the United States. There is a major snafu involving the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as Fafsa. Now, all of these high school seniors, college students and their families, not to mention the colleges they want to go to, are waiting in limbo to find out how much aid might be available to them. I don’t know about you, Priyanka, but I remember all of the angst that the financial aid process can normally be, and I just imagine that all of these issues has just magnified that now for so many. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Oh, absolutely. In addition to the normal ways that this would affect a college decision making process, this is pushing back this process for so many people because of these issues. So tell us what exactly caused this snafu? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Back in December of 2020, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that revamped the federal financial aid formula and required the creation of a newer and in theory, simpler Fafsa. It was supposed to be ready to go for the 2023/2024 school year, so the one we are currently in. But when the Biden administration came into office, the education department was basically like, nah, that deadline is impossible. This is actually a really big, complex project and we need more time. And so they got Congress to extend that deadline to the upcoming 2024/2025 school year. But due to repeated delays with the overhaul, the department is now unable to process new Fafsas on time. The new website, which launched back in December, also has some glitches, for example, according to Politico, students whose mom or dad don’t have a Social Security number can’t apply for aid at all, which is not supposed to be happening. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: No. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And the result right of all of this is that millions of families are having to wait weeks, if not months, longer than usual, to get their aid packages, which, as you just mentioned, impacts their decision making on where they can attend or even if they can attend college at all. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The setback has already prompted dozens of schools to push back their typical May 1st commitment deadline. And Southwestern University in Texas even created their own financial aid form to estimate student aid packages while the government gets its act together. So everybody, I guess, is, you know, trying to take a little bit in their own hands while the government is figuring out different fixes to the issue. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly. I mean, that is a good thing, but does not take away from the chaos that this is causing. So what has the Education Department said about all of this? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Well, officially, the Education Department has said one of three things. How complex the task at hand actually, is that they haven’t had enough money from Congress to really prioritize things in the ways that they would like to, and that there was also a last minute change to the financial aid formula because they hadn’t accounted for inflation. But according to Politico, behind the scenes, the vendor General Dynamics, which is building out the new system, is privately getting the blame from officials. Nonetheless, though, it’s giving botched rollout and it’s making folks think back to what happened when healthcare.gov had her little moment. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right? We do not like to see it. What are families who are in this position are being affected by this supposed to do now? You know, do we have an ETA on when this situation will be fixed? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Well, the administration says they are feverishly working on it. The Education department is also going to send reps to campuses nationwide and open up $50 million in federal funding to help school financial aid offices, you know, manage the fallout from all of this. And then the website Chalkbeat says that by today, the department will post a workaround for those whose parents don’t have a Social Security number, and that a permanent fix to that particular glitch is coming next month. But despite the mess that this all has been, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona maintained to reporters last week that the new Fafsa will be a quote unquote, “net win” when it’s all said and done. We, of course, will have to wait and see about that. But it’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s get to some headlines. 

 

[sung] Headlines. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: First, an update on the shooting at a Kansas City Super Bowl victory parade last week, which killed one person and injured 22 others. Missouri prosecutors said yesterday that two men have been charged with murder. Authorities say that the men didn’t know each other prior to the night’s events. And yesterday’s announcement comes after authorities charged two teenagers with violations related to firearms and resisting arrest. According to prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, more charges could be on the way. 

 

[clip of Jean Peters Baker] We seek to hold every shooter accountable for their actions on that day. Every single one. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to an admissions system designed to bolster diversity at a prestigious magnet high school in Northern Virginia. Thomas Jefferson High School changed its admissions review process in 2020 to consider what it describes as race blind factors, such as a student’s neighborhood and socioeconomic status. The school also did away with a notoriously difficult admissions test, and it reserved a set number of spots for high performing students from each middle school in its county. The first class admitted using this new process showed an increase in Black and Latino enrollment, as well as more low income students, girls, and students for whom English as a second language. But the student body’s percentage of Asian American students dropped from 70% to 50%, which caused some parents of those students to accuse the school of intentionally designing the admissions process to decrease Asian enrollment. A lower court ruled that the new admissions process was constitutional, and the Supreme Court’s decision allows that ruling to stand. More cases like this could be on the way as schools work out how to diversify their student bodies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s restriction of affirmative action last year. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Armed only with those little pencils for writing Dewey decimals, librarians are once again under attack, this time in West Virginia. Lawmakers have advanced a bill that would make it easier for the state to prosecute them and teachers for, quote unquote, “obscenity” featured in certain books and teaching materials. On Friday, the GOP led State House passed a measure that would no longer shield schools, public libraries and museums from being criminally charged in these cases. In the lead up to the vote, Republican delegate and lead sponsor of the bill, Brandon Steele, said that the measure protects children from viewing pornography. He also referred to libraries as, quote, “the sanctuary for pedophilia”. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Ugh. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Which I don’t know if you have paid a visit to your public library recently, just uh would not even register. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Right. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: On what I would call a lovely place that does so many amazing things for my community. Anyways, the problem here is that West Virginia’s definition of obscenity is very broad. The state code says that if a work doesn’t have any, quote, “literary, scientific, artistic, or political value,” it can be labeled as obscene. Democratic delegate Evan Hansen spoke out against the bill on Friday and called it a, quote, “de facto book ban”. The bill is now in the hands of the Republican controlled state Senate. I do not like the sound of that at all. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: At all. And finally, after an iconic career as a singer, songwriter and actress, former Disney Channel star Bridgit Mendler is adding CEO to her resume. On Monday, she announced her plans to launch a new space start up. Her company, Northwood Space hopes to improve the connection infrastructure between satellites and Earth. And according to CNBC, she’s doing so with the backing of investors who have already contributed around $6 million. Now, this might be a shock for the kids who grew up watching her on Disney Channel. She was on shows like Good Luck Charlie and Wizards of Waverly Place, and she starred in the movie musical Lemonade Mouth. Mendler’s career also includes a stint as a musician. You may remember her 2012 summer anthem Ready or Not. But in 2017, Mendler shifted gears to focus on her education. She got her doctorate in legal studies at Harvard University and earned a PhD from MIT. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Very casual. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Very casual. And Mendler told CNBC on Monday that she, quote, “completely fell in love with space law” when she later went on to work with the Federal Communications Commission’s Space Bureau. Now, she says, she’s bringing her vision of a, quote, “data highway between Earth and space” to life. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: There is truly nothing that Bridget Mendler cannot do. Hats off to her. My mind is blown. This is amazing. She can sing. She can act. She can lead a space startup. She has a doctorate in legal studies and a PhD. I’m sorry. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Listen. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: She’s been blowing minds on TikTok left and right and consider my mind blown. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: In the words of the great songwriter, she’s every woman. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And those are the headlines. 

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review. Travel on the Disney Channel star to CEO pipeline and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: And if you are into reading and not just obscene books like me, What a Day–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: –Yes. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: –is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 

 

[spoken together] And keep driving away from CPAC. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Get as far as you need to go. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Listen. Step on it. Okay? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly. [laughter] [music break]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers with production support from Jon Millstein. Our showrunner is Leo Duran and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.