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Minoritized, First-Gen Students Most at Risk from FAFSA Delays


Iné Collins has been a school counselor at Ewing High School in New Jersey since August 2022. This year, helping her high school seniors through the newly simplified FAFSA application process has been more stressful than simple.

Iné Collins, school counselor at Ewing High School in New Jersey.Iné Collins, school counselor at Ewing High School in New Jersey.“This new system, it’s supposed to be more user-friendly, but it ended up not dropping until January,” said Collins. “When you have students applying to early action or early decision trying to finalize where they’re gonna go—for a lot of our students, that financial need is really important.”

Traditionally, the FAFSA form opens on October 1, leaving students and their parents plenty of time to fill out the form. Institutions review the data and put together a financial aid offer, helping families decide which institution is the best fit for them and their wallets. This year, the FAFSA soft-launched on December 20, but was only widely available at the beginning of the year.

“When it comes to decision making, it being financially based, it’s hard to make those decisions when the school hasn’t received your form yet,” said Collins.

The delay is causing anxiety amongst her peers and even more so in the students she is trying to serve. Adding to the frustration, she said, was her inability to answer the myriad of questions that arose as students encountered difficulties in the process.

“The student’s nerves are real. [The delay] is keeping them from making decisions a little earlier than they would like to,” said Collins. “If I was in their shoes, I’d be freaking out too! Where I went was based on financials, also.”

These experiences have been replicated across the U.S. as the new FAFSA system encountered glitches and repeated delays. While some students have been able to navigate the new FAFSA within the ideal, reduced time-window of about 30 minutes, many other families encountered hiccups in the system, unable to send in paperwork due to unique familial circumstances or missing social security numbers for undocumented parents or students.

At an information session held Tuesday evening by the White House and the Department of Education, representatives said they were doing everything they could to troubleshoot and solve FAFSA problems as they arose. And some institutions, though not all, have agreed to push back acceptance dates from May 1 to as late as June 30 to give students more time to make their decision.

Nina Longino, executive director of iMentor, Chicago.Nina Longino, executive director of iMentor, Chicago.But experts said that these interruptions are already having a negative impact on the students who need financial aid the most: first generation students, students of color, and those from low-income backgrounds. The result of all the chaos could be a diminished freshman class entering postsecondary education in fall 2024 and a continued racial gap in educational achievement.

“The worst-case scenario, we expect less students to access and attain a critical postsecondary credential. And we know what that means for the students we serve, marginalized and first generation,” said Nina Longino, executive director of iMentor, Chicago, an organization working in urban centers across the country to ensure students complete high school and college by pairing students one-on-one with a volunteer, college-educated mentor.

Longino works with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Regional data collected by the To&Through Project, which researches educational outcomes in Chicago, predicts that only 30% of current CPS freshman will complete a college credential in ten years. Disaggregated data shows a 20-35% gap in credential attainment between Black and Brown students and white students, a number Longino calls “an atrocity.”

“We know the difference a college degree makes in terms of life outcomes, a difference of a million dollars in earning potential throughout the course of your lifetime, and breaking generations of poverty,” said Longino, adding that the FAFSA delays have created an “additional barrier to accessing higher education that will continue the disparities we see.”

Dr. Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at The Education Trust, an advocacy organization working for educational equity, agreed. The impact of this additional barrier, he said, could be worsened in states that administer financial aid packages on a first come, first serve basis, including Texas, Illinois, and North Carolina.

“For states that run out of state aid, if you’re not one of the students who was able to successfully navigate getting a FAFSA I.D., successfully complete until your form is submitted, you may be last in line or not in line at all for aid given,” said Del Pilar. “We know that, for students and families, one of their primary concerns is, ‘How am I gonna pay for college?’ To continue to have that question unanswered creates huge amount of stress and strain on families.”

Dr. Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at The Education Trust.Dr. Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at The Education Trust.The continued FAFSA complications, he added, could force some students to opt out of entering college.

“And if we learned anything about the students who finished high school in the pandemic and opted out of higher ed, they did not come back,” said Del Pilar. “My concern is that these gaps in attainment, the gaps in access to good jobs with benefits, health care and retirement, will continue to not go into the hands of folks who could benefit the most.”

Del Pilar said more institutions need to prioritize pushing back their acceptance dates, delay their own planning for classes, and seminars while students and families do not have the information and time, they need to make a critical decision about where to attend college.

Experts agree that, while this initial launch period of the FAFSA has proved more challenging than anticipated, they are hopeful that next year everything will run much smoother, and the FAFSA will, in fact, be simplified.

Jill Desjean, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), said the original intent of this new FAFSA was to serve more minoritized groups, who often reported difficulty in completing the original, lengthy and more complicated form.

“The idea behind the process was to expand access to college, making more people complete the form,” said Desjean. “When it works, it’s simpler, it’s better. But it doesn’t work for everyone. Once these glitches are fixed, it’ll be easier—but some of the damage is already done.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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