Interesting Reads This Week

Full-on fiasco

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Normally I try to mix things up a little in these interesting reads pieces, with different kinds of news from different places. But this week I am doing something else, in part because this week in higher education in the US was unusual. The FAFSA crisis has been brewing for the past few months, but this week something shifted: the situation got worse, more people began to realize what the impacts of the problem might be, and the country started to pay attention. We are getting a lot of questions at the ASU+GSV conference, on client calls, and in private messages, about the need for more information.

Archaeologies of failure

In the past two weeks, two great articles came out that did some deep digging into why things have gone as awry as they have with the new FAFSA rollout. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel in the Washington Post and Adam Harris in the Atlantic both give deeply sourced insight into the dynamics within the Department of Education (ED) that have led us to where we are today. Between them, the two articles paint a compelling picture of ED focused on other priorities, with some hubris and a real problem with communication.

On a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks in this newsletter, I have stated that I don’t believe that a concern with debt forgiveness contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves with FAFSA. In well-researched paragraph after paragraph, the two articles I describe here prove me wrong. The focus on debt was part of a larger problem with how staffers at ED approached the problem and prioritized what to do.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel in the Washington Post starts by exploring the decision to redo the whole technical backend of FAFSA rather than just tweaking the form and some of the calculations. ED was not required to do this, though the system on which FAFSA ran was rated one of the ten Federal systems most in need of modernization. But ED officials badly underestimated what it would take and kept being distracted by other tasks.

When the Biden administration took over in 2021, former student aid staffers said the FAFSA update was treated as a purely technocratic venture that civil servants could manage on their own.

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