Will FAFSA Delays Affect Incoming Law Students?

This blog comes from our consultant Joe Pollak. You can read his full bio at the end of this post.

You may have heard that the Department of Education announced delays in processing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This recent announcement comes after earlier technical delays related to the department’s rollout of a new version of the online application. The latest news is that the FAFSA application is available for students to submit, but the Department of Education does not anticipate transmitting data to universities until early March, which is later than in prior years.

We’ve started to receive questions from applicants about what this means for law school admissions. The best source of information for students is their law school’s financial aid office. However, we understand that many financial aid offices instruct applicants to begin the financial aid process before they are admitted, and yet, applicants may not feel comfortable asking questions to financial aid officers while they are waiting for admission. We will do our best to answer common questions here, but keep in mind that this situation is subject to change.

Will FAFSA delays materially affect the law school financial aid process?

The short answer is probably no, at least not materially, based on what we are hearing from law schools right now.

Will FAFSA delays affect need-based grant awards?

Maybe, but it may not be a big deal. For law schools that offer need-based grants, FAFSA is sometimes a required financial aid application component. Financial aid processes tend to begin in mid-February or March and then continue for additional students as they are admitted. Currently, the Department of Education is saying they will begin transmitting FAFSA data to financial aid offices in early March. While that is later than in prior years, it is not much later than when most law school financial aid offices planned to begin their processes.

What about student loans? Should students expect delays in disbursements for tuition or living expenses?

We do not expect widespread problems based on what we have heard so far. FAFSA is part of the student loan application process, and there may be aspects of that process that could be delayed, but if the data begins to be transmitted to law schools in March, as the Department of Education is saying, that still leaves several months before student loans need to be in place to pay fall semester tuition bills. Since the vast majority of 1Ls begin in the fall term, we expect that law schools will be able to process loan disbursements on the same schedule as normal. There are a handful of law schools that offer an option to begin in the summer term, and those law school financial aid offices are likely to prioritize processing student loans for those summer-term students.

So, if this is likely no big deal for law students, why all the media stories about FAFSA delays?

Well, it may be more significant for undergraduate students. Law students are not eligible for federal grants, like Pell Grants, but undergraduates are. And those undergraduates will only know for sure whether they qualify for federal grants once their FAFSA is processed.

Also, the maximum borrowing limits for graduate federal student loans are greater than the limits for undergraduates. Law students can work with their school’s financial aid office to develop a pretty accurate estimate of the amount of student loans that they are eligible to receive even before formally submitting FAFSA, but that’s not necessarily so easy to do for undergraduate students.

I heard that some undergraduate admissions offices are considering pushing back their deposit deadlines. Will law schools do the same?

It remains to be seen. If the current forecast remains accurate and the Department of Education begins transmitting FAFSA data to universities in March, then it seems like financial aid offices could have enough time to communicate awards prior to many law schools’ late April and early May deposit deadlines. If a student does not have the financial aid award information that they need before a deadline, particularly for a school with a relatively early deadline, then we think it is reasonable to ask the law school for an extension.

Joe Pollak is a former admissions officer for the University of Michigan Law School, where he negotiated scholarships, counseled students on their law school aspirations, ran the waitlist, supervised application processing, and managed applicants’ campus visits, among other responsibilities. Joe received his B.A. and J.D., both with honors, from the George Washington University. During law school, he worked as a fellow in the writing center and was a member of the George Washington International Law Review where he evaluated articles for publication. At other points in his career, he was an associate attorney with a large law firm in Washington, DC, nonprofit executive director, summer camp director, and editor for job seekers’ cover letters and résumés. In his free time, he is a fair-weather hiker, so-so bread baker, and novice bike-camper. Joe lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and two sons.