How The FAFSA Fiasco Delayed College Decision Day | Crooked Media
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May 12, 2024
What A Day
How The FAFSA Fiasco Delayed College Decision Day

In This Episode

  • “Decision Day” for high school students looking to go to college was pushed back this year to May 15th, rather than the traditional May 1st deadline. The shift was made to accommodate for a host of problems students have had using the new federal financial aid application or FAFSA. We spoke with Ellie Bruecker, the director of research at the Institute for College Access and Success, to get a better sense of where the FAFSA fiasco left college applicants.
  • And in headlines: Israeli forces continued to advance in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, students walk out of commencement speeches at VCU and Duke, and the start of the corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez.


Show Notes:



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Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Monday, May 13th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is What a Day where we are encouraging everyone to remain calm in the face of a potential Sriracha shortage. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. The company that makes the beloved hot sauce said it’s halting production until September because it’s pepper supply is too green. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That does not mean that anyone should start panic buying or fighting in the hot sauce aisle. 


Tre’vell Anderson: It’s not that serious. 


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s not that serious. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Just choose another hot sauce. [music break]


Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, Israel continues to move into Rafah. Plus, college graduations saw protests over the weekend. 


Tre’vell Anderson: But first Wednesday is the new decision day for a lot of high school seniors looking to go to college. Now, traditionally, students have to decide where they’re going to school by May 1st. But hundreds of schools and universities pushed their deadline back this year to May 15th or even into June because of problems with the federal financial aid application called the FAFSA. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, that term brings back very stressful memories. And I know, honestly, it’s even more stressful now, right, because the problems with the FAFSA have been going on for a while now. So can you give us a little bit of the history here? 


Tre’vell Anderson: So it all started way back in late December, when the Department of Education rolled out its new version of the FAFSA. It was supposed to be easier for students and their families to navigate, but it was three months late. People usually start filling it out in early October, and there were just so many problems with it. Some students reported issues filling out the form and fixing errors. The Department of Ed had to fix a math issue that left some families qualifying for less aid than they were entitled to. Then there was a glitch that blocked students with undocumented parents from completing their applications. And those delays just created more knock on effects. Because of all the problems, the government couldn’t send FAFSA information to colleges on time, and so colleges couldn’t send prospective students any aid offers. The head of the Federal Student Aid office resigned over the whole mess. But even now, some students are still in the dark about where, or even if they’ll go to college with little time left to decide. So to get a better sense of where this FAFSA fiasco has left students, I spoke with Ellie Bruecker. She’s the director of research at the Institute for College Access and Success. They are a nonprofit that aims to make higher education more affordable and available. And I started by asking her about all the ways this year’s college acceptance cycle looks different from previous years. 


Ellie Bruecker We are in a scenario now where most students, I think haven’t made a decision. Lots of students haven’t received financial aid packages yet from all of the colleges that they’ve been admitted to. Um. And plenty of students haven’t decided yet whether they’re going to college because of everything that’s been going on with the FAFSA. So it really hasn’t been a decision day for the majority of students, I think. 


Tre’vell Anderson: As you just mentioned, one of the most recent issues has been that many students are still waiting to hear from colleges about how much aid they will receive. Where are schools on that? How have they responded in this moment? 


Ellie Bruecker Financial aid offices are working their tails off right now. They have received financial information on their students far later in the process than they have in the past. And they’re working overtime trying to get these letters to students as much as possible. Most of the smaller schools who have fewer resources, I think in their financial aid offices, have pushed those dates back to give themselves some more time, to give students more time. But right now, we don’t really have a good sense of how many students have gotten financial aid packages from how many schools. So we’re kind of still it feels like most schools, most students are still in kind of a holding pattern waiting on that information. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, there’s some recent data from the National College Attainment Network that says that the number of high school students who’ve so far completed the FAFSA this year has plunged nearly 25% compared to last year. Can you put that number into context for us? Like what does a drop like that mean? 


Ellie Bruecker I remember in the height of the pandemic, high schools closed down, students went to going to school virtually. We saw a pretty substantial drop in FAFSA completions at that time, that everybody kind of in the field was really concerned about. This is so much bigger than that. What’s most troubling to me, too, is the pattern we’re seeing in where those declines are happening. The schools who are serving more higher income students are actually catching up faster. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Of course. 


Ellie Bruecker So 43% of students in schools that seve fewer low income students have completed a Fafsa. But that’s only 36% in schools that serve higher proportions of low income students. And obviously, lower income students are the ones who are going to be eligible for more financial aid, who are going to rely on that more to pay for college. So that pattern, I think, is a perspective that I think is really important here. But looking at where the decline is, who is being most affected by that really has has me concerned. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. And how much longer do prospective students have to fill out the FAFSA? 


Ellie Bruecker So technically, students can fill out the FAFSA like a few months into their freshman year of college, they can be enrolled. But that tuition bill is going to come due before that. Right. So if students want to be able to pay their tuition bill on time, they’re going to need to apply before that becomes due. Most of those are going to be August, September. I think for a lot of students, the deadline is a little fuzzy there. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, we mentioned earlier that some schools wanted to, you know, help out students. So they pushed back deadlines. But others, you know, like the Ivy League schools, for examples did not–


Ellie Bruecker Yes. 


Tre’vell Anderson: –push back their decision days. I know you were a first generation college student like myself. You also were a Pell Grant recipient. If you were a student now, still waiting to hear how much financial aid you qualified for, how would that have shaped the decisions that you had to make at that time? 


Ellie Bruecker Oh, gosh. I mean, if that would have been an impossible situation because the decision that I was making was what was going to be the most affordable for me. Students who are in a situation where maybe they’ve received a financial aid package from one institution, but not from another, they’ve been admitted to two, they’re choosing between some of these institutions, and so they have to run the risk of, should I take this deal? The students who I think had still been maybe on the fence about whether to go to college at all. Not having that information at this point, I’m sure, is pushing some students to think like, I’ll put this off, maybe I’ll think about it next year. And we know very often those students don’t end up thinking about it next year and don’t come back into that pipeline. 


Tre’vell Anderson: List en. 


Ellie Bruecker Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. I also was one of those students who my college choice was based on  who gave me the most money. It was that simple for me. And you mentioned that folks have been saying, you know, put down a a deposit, tuition deposit and hope that financial aid will kick in later. But what are the risks, right, that people face doing that, especially given, you know, college is not cheap these days. You know what I mean?


Ellie Bruecker Mmm. Oh no. We know that students underestimate how much financial aid they’re going to get and they overestimate the cost of college. And so I do really worry about students perhaps picking the college with the lower sticker price in this situation where they’re waiting on a financial aid package, they’re looking at, okay, well, what does the internet say that this college costs? Not necessarily what is it going to cost me? But what does it say it costs? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. 


Ellie Bruecker They might opt to go for the one that appears to be cheaper, but a lot of times some of the more selective institutions, institutions with big endowments, they have the ability to provide more financial aid. So sometimes a more selective college can actually end up being less expensive to a student. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 


Ellie Bruecker And so I worry about students right now not picking the college that would really, truly be the best fit for them, because they don’t want to take the risk of something costing more than they can afford. 


Tre’vell Anderson: So beyond extending their decision deadlines, what else are schools doing to help prospective students navigate, you know, these issues? 


Ellie Bruecker We have seen some states, I think states maybe more than institutions really put everything into this. They’re trying to reach students who haven’t completed yet in schools. I know some have been providing data to high school counselors so that they can reach out to students that they know have not completed yet. Say, hey, how can I support you to get this done? But I think this has to be kind of an all hands on deck situation. Institutions, high schools, state governments, federal government. And I think we haven’t necessarily seen that full push everywhere. It should have been all hands on deck six months ago. 


Tre’vell Anderson: What more could federal officials be doing to make sure that young folks are filling out the FAFSA? 


Ellie Bruecker At this point, I’m not sure it’s a matter of what they could do more. I think looking back, there are things I would have liked maybe for them to do earlier in the process to–


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 


Ellie Bruecker –communicate around some of this a little better, but I think right now the department is doing all it can, uh to support states to support institutions. We do think that financial aid offices, particularly financial aid offices at small colleges and colleges that are underfunded, they could probably use additional support from the department. At this point it’s almost I hate to say that it’s a little bit too late, but there is not a lot that we can do at this point. But keep pushing, trying to get students to get this done and to complete. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, for my last question, I want to just step out just a little bit, right? Because it’s not just the mess around the FAFSA that is weighing on this college admissions cycle. There’s the Supreme Court last year that ended affirmative action. We have been seeing campus protests over the war in Gaza that I’m sure is stressing out some prospective students. Taking all of that together, what more do you think colleges can be doing to help you know the incoming class once they arrive on campus? 


Ellie Bruecker I think reassuring students maybe by reaching out, especially to students who perhaps don’t have networks on campus, who don’t have a family member or, you know, a trusted friend who can tell them kind of how all this works. I think reaching out to those students and making sure you know that they’re doing okay, particularly for students of color at predominantly white institutions, making sure that they have connections. And I think beyond what institutions can do, I think just generally states, the federal government, we need to invest more in higher education. Something I’ve been trying to bring up is even if all of this had been done correctly, if there were no delays, no hiccups in the implementation of the FAFSA, the reality is that most low income students still are not getting enough financial aid to get through college without massive student loan debt. So even if completing a FAFSA this year had been smooth sailing, we still really need to make a lot more progress in making sure financial aid is sufficient to pay for college. There’s so many other stressors happening here to add to that that students know while they’re in school, their debt is climbing. We really need to talk about how we ease the burden of paying for college so that students have, you know, emotional capacity and energy left to deal with everything else that they’re going to have to deal with. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with Ellie Bruecker of the Institute for College Access and Success. That’s the latest for now. We’ll get to some headlines in a moment. But if you like our show, tell somebody about it. Subs cribe, share it with your friends. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]




Josie Duffy Rice: Now let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Israeli forces continued to advance in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Sunday, in what they say is a pursuit to eliminate Hamas. But according to the New York Times, American intelligence officials say neither Hamas’s top leader nor any leaders, for that matter, are hiding in the city. The U.S. says Israel agrees, and the two countries spy agencies have reason to believe that Hamas leaders are still in the tunnel system beneath the closest city to the north, Khan Younis. The US hopes the information will prevent the Israeli Defense Forces from launching a major ground invasion on Rafah. At the beginning of May, there were a million refugees sheltering in Rafah, but the UN said Sunday that it believes more than 300,000 have fled the city over the past week. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to identify a red line for Israel and expressed concern about the refugee situation in Gaza. 


[clip of Antony Blinken] Absent a credible plan to get them out of harm’s way and to support them, uh the president’s been clear for some time that we couldn’t and would not support a major military operation in Rafah.


Tre’vell Anderson: Following a month in which U.S. college campuses were roiled by protests. Students walked out of multiple commencement speeches over the weekend. About 100 of 1200 Virginia Commonwealth University graduates left in the middle of an address by the state’s governor, Glenn Youngkin. Earlier in the week, the school’s chapter of the Virginia NAACP had asked the administrators to cancel Youngkin speech over objections to the governor’s stances on teaching about LGBTQ+ issues, race, and more. Student protesters outside of the ceremony also carried signs and chanted in support of Palestinian rights. In North Carolina. Dozens of Duke University students walked out of a commencement ceremony fronted by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, with some chanting Free Palestine as they exited. Seinfeld has been a vocal advocate for Israel during its military incursion into Gaza following the October 7th attacks by Hamas. And at University of Southern California, a show of support for the student whose valedictory speech was canceled over unspecified safety concerns, Asna Tabassum got a standing ovation upon receiving her degree. 


[clip of unnamed degree name reader] Asna will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering, Molecular and cellular Engineering, and a minor in resistance to genocide. [cheers]


Josie Duffy Rice: Beautiful. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Shout out to  her. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I know. Jury selection is set to begin today in the criminal corruption trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Who’s responsible for reminding us all that gold bars are still a thing. Menendez faces 16 felony charges for allegedly using his position of power to assist two foreign governments and three New Jersey businessmen in exchange for gold, almost half a million dollars in cash, a Mercedes-Benz and more. He will be tried in Manhattan federal court. Menendez’s wife, faces similar charges but is being tried separately from him at her request. This will Menendez’s second corruption trial in a decade. The first was in 2017 and ended in a mistrial. The senator maintains his innocence and has not yet ruled out an independent run for his long held Senate seat in November, though he has said he will not campaign as a Democrat. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Richard Rick Slayman, the first person to receive a kidney transplant from a pig, has died. Slayman had a human kidney transplant in 2018 after living with diabetes and high blood pressure for years. He eventually had to go back on dialysis a few years after the transplant, and two months ago he received the pig kidney transplant. And when the procedure was successful, doctors believed it would give Slayman more years to live. Massachusetts General Hospital, the hospital that performed the transplant, said there is no indication that the pig kidney was the cause of Slayman’s death. Slayman’s family also put out a statement thanking doctors for giving them a little more time with him. He was 62 years old. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Singer, dancer, producer Shakira has become even more of a multi-hyphenate. She is also now a person who is not guilty of tax evasion. That’s because last week, investigators in Spain said they lacked the evidence  to prove Shakira used tax havens and shell companies to hold on to 6.6 million euros she owed the country in 2018. The court agreed that Shakira had made no, quote, “intent to defraud” the Spanish government. This tax trial wasn’t the first time Shakira has had problems with Spain’s version of a form 1040. Earlier this year, she was facing a potential eight year jail sentence over her 2012 and 2014 taxes, but was able to resolve the situation by paying a €7.8 million fine. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, her hips don’t lie and neither does her accountant, I guess. 


Josie Duffy Rice: At least not that they can prove. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And you know what? That’s all that matters. [laughing]


Josie Duffy Rice: That’s how it sounds to me. I don’t know what’s lying, but they can’t prove anything. And those are the headlines. 




Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you liked the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Don’t lie with your hips or with your accountant and tell your friends to listen. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading and not just Shakira’s tax returns like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter, so check it out and subscribe at! I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


[spoken together] And ration your sriracha. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Now’s a great time to learn about other hot sauces. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Texas Pete, Krystal’s hot sauce. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Louisiana. 


Josie Duffy Rice: There’s a lot out there for you. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Chopatulo. Ain’t there’s one called Chopatulo or something like that?


Josie Duffy Rice: [laugh] I don’t think that’s the name, but I do know exactly what you’re talking about. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You know exactly what I’m talking about. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I do. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Michell Eloy, Greg Walters and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison, and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.