Under enormous pressure, federal education officials on Tuesday announced another round of measures to ease a crisis caused by the problem-plagued implementation of the key form used by aspiring college students to calculate major financial aid packages tied to their upcoming university acceptances.

The online form, known as FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which was previously available in late October, was not fully accessible until mid-January. This delay and numerous computer failures have led to a sharp drop in the number of submissions: approximately half at the end of January.

The frustrating irony for students is that the new system was supposed to make things easier and faster, but so far it has turned out to be just the opposite.

The measures announced Tuesday do not actually solve the computer problems that students have encountered with the forms. Instead, the Department of Education eased – at least temporarily – federal oversight of the financial aid system to streamline the process. Fewer students will have to verify their identity or financial information; a smaller number of universities will face program reviews and such reviews may be delayed beyond the current crisis period.

Officials said they would still be able to detect suspected fraud or prevent it in part because the new form connects online directly to the tax information parents have filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

“Our top priority is to ensure that students can access the maximum financial aid possible to help them achieve their higher education goals,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a conference call with media on Monday. “These steps reflect the many conversations my colleagues and I are having with college and university leaders, financial aid administrators, students and parents, and others who are on the front lines.”

Democratic lawmakers, reluctant to criticize the Biden administration in its re-election mode, expressed their exasperation in a Monday letter to Cardona’s agency.

“Any delay in processing financial aid will most impact students who need help most, including many students of color, students from mixed-status families, students from rural backgrounds, students who are homeless or in foster care, first-class students generation and students from underserved communities,” wrote the lawmakers, who included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).

Particularly withering criticism has come from Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

“The Department of Education has had more than three years to prepare, and yet students still cannot use their completed applications for federal, state, and college financial aid,” Cassidy wrote to Cardona in a Jan. 12 letter. . “This is unacceptable and does not appear to be consistent with industry standards for website development and launch.”

He added: “The failed implementation means that students will be forced to make financial aid decisions with less time and less information than in the past. Where to go to college and how to finance it is one of the most important financial decisions a person will make in their life. “ED needs to make that decision easier, not harder.”

Cassidy and other Republican lawmakers called for an investigation.

Each year, about 17 million students complete the FAFSA as the first step to accessing financial aid. The feds deliver the processed applications to colleges, which use them to put together financial aid packages. The Department of Education had predicted that the new FAFSA would result in 610,000 more low-income students being eligible for a federal Pell Grant and 1.5 million more being eligible for a maximum Pell Grant of $7,395.

The latest actions follow those announced last week, including the assignment of support teams to help universities manage the new process and the flood of data arriving later than usual. The department also pledged $50 million for nonprofit organizations to provide similar assistance to both colleges and families.

Education Department officials said funding shortages contributed greatly to the problems.

Congress had “set deadlines that required us to undertake three massive modernization projects within a few months of each other,” said a senior department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official was referring to complex resumption of student loan payments in the fall, as well as the new FAFSA.

“Congress did not provide the substantial amount of increased funding that we requested to implement these…bipartisan projects, and here we are in the fiscal year and we don’t have a budget for this year either. Therefore, it is a big challenge for us to offer the level of service that we want to provide,” the official said.

The Democratic lawmakers also acknowledged in the letter that the Department of Education has had to work with “less funding than they anticipated would be needed to complete the work correctly and on time.”

The latest FAFSA measures will not be a panacea.

The department, for example, still has no solution for the system’s apparent failure when a student reports that a parent lacks a Social Security number.

“We meet daily to chart a path forward,” said a senior department official. “I have no news to share at this time. But it is a very, very important issue for us and we are working very hard to find a way forward.”

A possible solution is for families in this situation to submit the paper version of the FAFSA, avoiding the computer problem.

Officials also had no ready response to the nearly endless waits for help and automatic cutoffs to helplines.

As a condition of participating in the briefing, journalists had to agree not to identify any senior officials by name. Only Secretary Cardona spoke on the record, but he did not answer questions and left the briefing before the question and answer session began.

But Cardona did discuss that the technical challenge had resulted in “delays resulting from the complete overhaul of a broken system that is older than me.”

“This is about delivering on the promise of transformative change,” Cardona said. “This is about reforming a broken system that was failing too many students and that we have normalized in this country. “This is about ensuring that the doors of higher education are opened to many more students whose lives can change for the better but who have been deterred by the cost and complexity of the system.”

By the end of January, about 700,000 seniors nationwide had applied, up from about 1.5 million applicants at the same time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network, which analyzed data from the Department of Education. USA.

In California, only 16.1% of seniors had filed a FAFSA as of Feb. 2, a drop of more than 57% from the same time last year, according to network data.

The delays led the University of California and California State University to announce last week that they would extend the May 1 deadline for freshmen to accept their admission offers for fall 2024. Both systems announced extensions until at least May 15. which Cal Grants provides through the California Student Aid Commission, also extended the priority deadline for submitting financial aid applications by one month, to April 2.

Calabasas High senior Adam Swarth hoped to finish the college application process early. But instead, the FAFSA problems worsened and prolonged a stressful time. He is still worried.

“We don’t understand exactly what the problems are,” he said. “We just know that the problems exist. I may not be able to go to the university of my choice because the university will not have the financial package ready for me when I have to decide.”

By Sam