The problem, which the department said had been fixed, affected applications from dependent students who reported assets on their FAFSA, according to the announcement. Previously, the FAFSA-processing system was not including all the data fields required to correctly calculate the Student Aid Index, a number that colleges use to determine how much federal aid an applicant should receive. The department said that the problem, which affected student-aid records delivered before March 21, resulted in an inaccurate total of what a student can contribute — and thus an “SAI that was lower than expected.”

That’s important because the lower students’ SAIs are, the greater their financial need. And the greater their need is, the more federal aid — grants, loans, work-study — they’re eligible for.

The department said it identified the problem this month after it started delivering processed aid applications, known as Institutional Student Information Records, or ISIRs. As The Chronicle reported this week, those long-awaited records are finally flowing to institutions, states, and scholarship organizations, which means that the stalled financial-aid process can soon get rolling again. The department said it had processed more than 1.5 million federal-aid forms (out of about six million submitted) so far; it expects to “continue delivering a significant volume of ISIRs over the coming days.”

Justin Draeger, president and chief executive of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, described the miscalculation as “another unforced error” that would probably prolong some students’ wait for aid offers. “At this stage in the game and after so many delays,” he said in a written statement, “every error adds up and will be felt acutely by every student who is counting on need-based financial aid to make their postsecondary dreams a reality.”

The department said it had delivered more than 1.3 million ISIRs that were not affected by the miscalculation. Its announcement instructs colleges to process those records as usual. As an “interim fix” for the miscalculation, the department said, colleges can “recalculate the SAI to develop a tentative aid package for an affected student without waiting to receive a reprocessed ISIR.”

But Draeger pushed back against that suggestion. Though colleges will continue to work in good faith with the federal government, he said in his statement, institutions “can only work with valid and correct data that is provided to them from the U.S. Department of Education. It is not feasible or realistic to send out incorrect FAFSA data and ask thousands of schools to make real-time calculations and adjustments to the federal formula on the school side.”

Jim Fowler, vice president for enrollment management at Salve Regina University, in Rhode Island, said his institution had received about 800 ISIRs for prospective students so far. Typically it would have about 3,000 by this point in March.

The calculation error announced on Friday was not a “huge snag,” he said, given that the total number of applicants affected, spread across numerous colleges, would mean that most financial-aid staffs would have to deal with only a handful of affected ISIRs.

“But it’s just one more weight added to the deck when financial-aid offices are already feeling like the weight is too heavy,” he said. “If we have to recalculate an SAI for a handful of students, that’s easy. But when you combine it with the fact that we’re already four or five months behind, this is just compounding their workload that typically would have been spread out over time.”