Seniors Left Without Answers as FAFSA Rollout Delayed

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*The name of a student interviewed is a pseudonym to protect their confidentiality.

Each year, millions of students across the country complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as a part of their college application process. FAFSA started in 1992 and has offered student loans, federal grants, and work-study funds to eligible applicants since. The information submitted to FAFSA is also used by public and private universities to administer their own financial aid programs to applicants.

On August 4, 2022, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which intended to make the application easier to complete and expand the applicant pool for a Federal Pell Grant—a special type of grant that does not need to be repaid. Between the passing of the bill in 2022 and its scheduled implementation in 2024, the Department of Education was instructed to adjust the formula used to calculate students’ wealth to accommodate recent inflation. These calculations determine how much federal financial aid individual students are eligible for.

However, the Department of Education failed to adjust the formula correctly, causing miscalculations of applicants’ wealth and limiting their eligibility for aid. The Department reported that these miscalulations impacted several hundreds of thousands of applications. In response, FAFSA’s rollout was delayed by over four months, only becoming fully accessible in mid-January of 2024.

Once the application finally opened, FAFSA’s website was immediately plagued with technical difficulties, preventing students from submitting applications and delaying the process further.

Senior AVID teacher Kari Brown has been assisting her students with their FAFSA applications. “FAFSA has always been a bit of a headache to fill out. It requires you to have a lot of financial documents and records from two years ago on hand,” Brown explained. “The application was supposed to be simpler this year, but it had more technical difficulties than ever before.”

Senior Maya* is one of 17 million students projected to fill out FAFSA this year, although her experience with the application has been challenging. “[FAFSA] first became a problem around February when it wouldn’t let us into our account,” she explained. “We called 20 times until they answered, but they kept hanging up and redirecting us. It took us three hours to get answers.”

Maya, whose parents are undocumented immigrants and don’t speak English, had to manage the FAFSA application all on her own. She explained that FAFSA continued to deny her parents access to their accounts, despite multiple attempts to verify her parents’ identities. “We called another ten times until they answered again and they said to wait 14 days. 14 days passed and nothing happened,” she said.

Senior Nao Ohashi had a similar experience with her FAFSA application process. Ohashi explained that since she is not a U.S. citizen, and therefore has no social security number, FAFSA required her to call to verify her identity before applying. “I called for three weeks straight. I would call them every morning, every lunch, and every day after school, and not once did they pick up the entire time,” she recalled.

Many of Brown’s AVID students also come from migrant families that don’t have social security numbers. In regards to her students’ experience with FAFSA this year, Brown explained, “People whose parents don’t have social security numbers could not fill out the parent portion of the FAFSA without being ‘verified,’ which was a process that took weeks and affected students of color more than anyone else, making it harder for them to submit their forms and harder to qualify for financial aid.”

After weeks of calling, Ohashi ultimately rescinded her FAFSA application. “It’s stressful knowing that I am not eligible for any kind of government aid. I’ve been financially privileged and lucky enough to not have to stop applying to colleges, but it is still scary that I don’t have FAFSA aid,” she said.

Currently, Maya’s parents still don’t have access to their accounts, despite the hours spent on hold with the FAFSA support line. Maya described how the stress from FAFSA’s technical difficulties has affected her mental health. “I’m trying to do my own schoolwork, but at the same time, I’m trying to help my parents with their FAFSA issues, but I can’t help so I just feel worse,” she explained. “It’s making me move slower through school because I help them wake up early to call the FAFSA office.”

Ohashi shared concerns that FAFSA’s large-scale issues could worsen the educational equity gap. “Just because [students] are not American citizens, they suddenly can’t get the financial aid that they need for colleges,” she said.

The effects of FAFSA’s delays go beyond just determining federal aid and have begun impacting university aid packages. Brown explained, “Universities use [FAFSA] information to allocate financial aid to their admitted students. This year, most universities haven’t sent financial aid packages alongside their letters of admission, but still have April and May deadlines for accepting their admission offers. This puts many students in the position of either having to accept admissions without knowing how much it’s actually going to cost them, or to not accept offers they want because they are uncertain if they can afford to go.”

M-A college counselor Joshua Barraza shared similar concerns about the long-term impacts of FAFSA delays. “Many students will unfortunately need to wait until financial aid award letters become available in late spring before making a decision to attend a college. Students relying on financial aid support from FAFSA will have a short time period to make college decisions,” he said.

These difficulties have also discouraged some students from applying for FAFSA altogether. “Due to the technical issues and the late start to the FAFSA cycle, we saw low turnouts this year. We are seeing lower amounts of students stopping by the College and Career Center for questions regarding FAFSA,” Brown said.

For Maya, like many other applicants, as decision deadlines near, she is left without answers from FAFSA. She shared, “Other years, [the deadline] was earlier, and from there you chose your school and the housing you’re going to have. But now, it’s pushed back, and you’re left wondering, ‘What if I don’t get a place to live at school?’”

In an email to students, M-A’s college counseling department addressed the issues with FAFSA. The email claimed, “The Dept. of Education said that the ability to make corrections or adjustments to processed FAFSAs won’t happen until ‘the first half of April.’”

However, despite efforts to correct technical errors, a statement from the Department of Education this week revealed new problems within the application. The Department stated that up to 20% of the 6.6 million applications submitted contain miscalculated data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regarding the tax history of applicants’ families.

As college decisions are released in the following months, there is no end in sight for students grappling with FAFSA errors. Many schools continue to push their deadlines for financial aid as FAFSA miscalculations continue to mount.

Gaby is a sophomore at M-A and is in her second year of journalism. This year, she is looking forward to writing about local and on campus issues. In her free time she likes to listen to music, run, and spend time with friends.

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