A cyclist rides through the University of Maine campus in Orono in 2021. Because of the glitches with the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid program, all of the schools in the University of Maine System have pushed back their decision deadlines from May 1 to June 1. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Fewer Maine students filed applications for federal student aid this year after a change to the application caused chaos and delays to college admission processes nationwide.

Submissions of the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid form in Maine are down 23% from the 7,897 students who had applied at this time last year, according to the latest data from the federal Department of Education.

That means that as of April 26, roughly 1,800 fewer students in Maine had applied for the financial aid that could help them decide which college to attend or whether to go to college at all.

The new FAFSA form was rolled out in December with the intention of simplifying the process of applying for federal aid and providing more money to students from low- and middle-income homes. But the rollout has been plagued by delays and technical glitches that have made it more challenging than ever for students to complete the form, and it has held up colleges in putting together financial aid offers.

In response, some colleges have pushed back their deadline for students to commit, which is traditionally May 1. That includes all of the University of Maine System schools, which pushed their deadline back to June 1.

Most competitive private colleges, including Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, did not push back their deadlines. Spokespeople for those schools said that they kept their May 1 deadlines because they use a different system to calculate student need so they have been able to offer financial aid packages despite the FAFSA debacle.

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All of the University of Maine System schools that had May 1 deposit deadlines pushed those back to June 1.

The process of choosing if or what college to enroll in is often a stressful one. But this year it has been even more so because of the disastrous FAFSA form rollout.

“It’s made it really hard for kids to figure out what to do, when and how,” Old Orchard Beach High School guidance counselor Paul Santamore said.

Understanding financial aid package offers prior to choosing a school is crucial because schools’ advertised sticker prices don’t always represent the actual amount a student would have to pay.

For example, the total cost of attending Bowdoin College is $85,100 per year. But according to the college’s website, 51% of students receive aid from the federal government and the institution – averaging $69,000 – which brings the average cost down to $16,100.

The total cost of attending the University of Maine, the state’s flagship university, as an in-state student, is $22,716 for the year. But the actual average cost on-campus students have to pay, not including loans, is $15,327. The average cost including loans is $10,325.

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Casco Bay High School guidance counselor Stephanie Doyle said the FAFSA debacle has been hard on students and families.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty for families and students and I think it’s produced a lot of anxiety for folks,” she said. “Senior year, you really want to feel good about what your plan is.”

But graduation is looming and students still don’t have all the information they need to make an informed decision about college.

“It puts students on edge that they’re leaving and they don’t have a plan,” Doyle said.

Doyle also said she and her colleagues are worried that they won’t be able to help as many students weigh financial aid packages and other decisions about their futures if those offers don’t come in until after graduation.

STUDENTS ENCOURAGED TO FILL FAFSA

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Mila Tappan, the college access and outreach manager at the Financial Authority of Maine, which helps students and families fill out their FAFSA form and make financial decisions about college, said that she has spoken with students and families more frequently this year than she has in recent years.

“This year has been challenging, there is not doubt about it,” she said.

But she also said that many of the new FAFSA form’s problems have been remedied and the new form is simpler than the old one. Despite complications, she encouraged students and their families to fill it out.

The new FAFSA form was meant to help students from low- and moderate-income households. But those are the students who have been hurt the most, says Sandy Baum, a higher-education finance expert and a senior fellow at Urban Institute’s Center of Education Data and Policy.

“It’s the more vulnerable students and those who are more on the border of going to college or not that are most likely to be impacted by this,” Baum said.

She said students without strong support networks are less likely to be able to surpass the extra barriers to filling out the FAFSA.

Although she said it’s not yet possible to say how many students the rollout will have a long-term impact on, she believes there will be students who don’t go to college because of it.

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