KU leaders think another record freshman class is possible, but federal woes with financial aid threaten it

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

When the next school year begins, KU has a chance to set a freshmen enrollment record for the second year in a row.

It also has a chance to be foiled by the federal government.

The number of prospective students applying for admittance to KU for the 2024-2025 school year is running ahead of the pace KU saw last year, when a record class of 5,259 freshmen enrolled at the Lawrence campus.

Normally, such application numbers, which were recently confirmed by KU’s chief financial officer, would have university leaders in jumping-up-and-down mode. This year, it is more like keep-your-fingers-crossed mode.

“We don’t know what is real and what is not real,” University of Kansas CFO Jeff DeWitt said last week as part of a financial update to the Kansas Board of Regents. “We know we are ahead of last year, but we don’t know what is going to stick.”

The issue that may thwart KU’s enrollment growth is one that has more ‘F’s’ in it than any self-respecting transcript — FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Almost every scholarship offered by universities across the country requires students to fill out the FAFSA form. The U.S. Department of Education revamped the form this year, in an effort to make it simpler and to accommodate a new system designed to make more families eligible for aid.

But the online release of the form was delayed by about two months, and now that it is available, students and their parents often are having difficulties getting the form completed. Federal officials, as a result, have been delayed in providing the universities with the FAFSA data, which provides financial details about students that schools use in awarding scholarships and financial aid packages.

Without that data, schools like KU can’t make formal financial aid offers to students.

“We know their GPAs, but we don’t know what they need (financially) to come to Kansas,” DeWitt said.

The FAFSA information doesn’t just impact how scholarships are awarded, but it also plays a role in issues like whether students are eligible for Pell Grants or certain types of low-interest student loans. With tuition, room and board, books and other fees often totaling upward of $20,000 per year even at public institutions, the FAFSA data often plays a big role in whether students enroll at their first choice, or maybe their second or third choice due to finances.

Exactly when students will start getting financial aid packages from KU is unclear. The Associated Press reported this week that the soonest universities will start receiving FAFSA data is next month. Then, schools have to process that information and figure out how to divvy up a limited amount of financial aid funding.

DeWitt said he thinks that process could stretch into May for KU. If so, that would be about three months behind where the university normally would be in the process.

KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said KU is telling students and their families that the No. 1 step they can take is to get the FAFSA completed as soon as possible.

“This proactive step will will help expedite the process once the data becomes available,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

The FAFSA form is available at studentaid.gov. KU also is operating a service to help students and families fill out the form. Douglas County residents who need help with the form can schedule an appointment to receive assistance by emailing melodyl@ku.edu.

Still, it might be a summer of stress and frustration for prospective students and their families who are depending on significant financial aid awards. At their monthly meeting in Topeka, the Regents — who oversee the state’s public universities, community colleges and technical schools — were expressing their own frustration.

When one Regent asked what the explanation was for the federal delay, Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said the answers aren’t satisfying to many.

“There has not been a real good explanation,” Flanders said of the federal delays. He noted that the form, and the online system used to support it, went through a complete redesign.

“Many times you have one good idea, and every idea to be on the form is a good idea, but when you put them all together, it crushes it,” Flanders said. “I hope that is not where we are. I know our people on the ground will make it work, but it will be difficult.”

Whether it is realistic for KU or any other university in the state to expect enrollment gains with this much uncertainty around financial aid is an open question. Flanders said university admission departments are really going to have to scramble to make calculations quickly and have good communications with students who may simply decide to put college off for a year — or more — while waiting for word on financial aid.

“I think they are doing yeoman’s work in the field and on the ground,” Flanders said of university officials, “but there is no doubt that this delay is likely going to damage some enrollments.”

The delay comes at a particularly bad time for KU. The Lawrence campus finished its last fiscal year with a $22 million financial deficit, and it is expected to have a $13 million deficit this fiscal year, the Journal-World recently reported. KU, which is using cash reserves to cover the deficits for now, is counting on new recruitment and retention strategies to boost enrollment and help close the financial gaps.

The record freshmen class for the 2023-2024 school year was an early sign the strategy was working. KU focused more on some out-of-state markets, and the numbers show a payoff. The bulk of KU’s overall enrollment growth on the Lawrence campus came from out-of-state students. Out-of-state enrollment grew by 11% to 8,422 students, which was highest mark in at least the last five years, according to numbers presented to the Regents.

Enrollment by in-state students also grew, but by just 4%, and in-state enrollment totals are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Out-of-state students could be particularly valuable in KU’s financial plans because they pay higher tuition rates than in-state students. But that fact also might make them more vulnerable to take KU off their list, if they are uncertain about what financial aid they qualify for.

For DeWitt and other budget-makers at KU, they have a different type of near-term problem. They have to make decisions now about preparing next year’s class, even though significant amounts of uncertainty remain.

This issue of housing is a big one. As the Journal-World reported, KU struck lease deals with several private apartment complexes in Lawrence for the 2023-2024 school year to accommodate the record freshmen class, as current dorm space wasn’t adequate.

DeWitt told Regents that KU next month will have a new set of leases that it will seek approval on for the 2024-2025 school year, even though the enrollment picture is cloudy.

Such risks are uncomfortable, but there are worse situations. Many universities already know they won’t have enrollment growth, regardless of the FAFSA situation. That creates a whole other set of problems.

“Growth isn’t free, but I would rather have growth than not have growth,” DeWitt said. “It is a good problem to have.”


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