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Botched rollout of redesigned FAFSA leads to steep filing declines for Fort Worth students

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

In a typical year, most of Lindsey Hernandez’s students would know by now where they were going to college next year.

But for high school counselors across the country, this year has been anything but typical. Delays and technical glitches have plagued the rollout of the newly redesigned federal financial aid application, holding up the application process for some students and keeping others from applying at all.

Hernandez, a counselor at Timber Creek High School in the Keller Independent School District, said many of her students are struggling to get their forms submitted. Students and their parents have had to navigate glitches that lock certain families out of the portal, and a system that seems to shut down for no reason at all, she said.

“It’s just been a pretty frustrating process,” she said.

In Fort Worth and across Texas, the botched rollout of the redesigned Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has led to sharp declines in the number of high school seniors applying for financial aid. With just weeks left before the end of the school year, high school counselors and college attainment advocates are growing concerned that delays and technical issues will derail the college plans of thousands of students.

Fort Worth FAFSA filings down 44%

As of April 5, just 38.4% of seniors in Fort Worth high schools had completed the FAFSA, according to U.S. Department of Education data compiled by the National College Attainment Network. That’s a 44% decline from last year, according to the network.

The picture is comparable across the state: 31.3% of Texas seniors submitted a FAFSA by April 5, a 41.3% decline from last year, according to the network.

While those filing declines spanned all categories of high schools in the state, they were steepest in schools with large concentrations of students of color and students from low-income families. Declines were slightly higher in schools in large cities and small towns than they were in suburban and rural campuses.

Timber Creek, which is located in north Fort Worth near Alliance Airport, had seen a 46% decline in FAFSA completions by April 5 compared with last year, according to the college completion network. Hernandez said most of her families who haven’t filed are in one of two situations: They haven’t been able to submit because of the confusion around the newly revamped system, or they submitted an application but have had to wait to go back and correct some minor error, like a missing signature.

In a typical year, families wouldn’t have to wait to make those kinds of corrections, she said. But this year, the system didn’t allow filers to fix errors right away. Education Department officials said families would be able to begin making corrections this week, but Hernandez said that too has been unpredictable. Some families have told her they’ve been able to make those edits, while others are still locked out.

There are several variables that can make the process easier or harder for families. For months, a technical glitch has blocked families in which one or both parents don’t have a Social Security number from applying. But Hernandez said the portal also seems to work better on some days than others, for no obvious reason. That issue was thrown into sharp relief during the four FAFSA completion nights the school hosted — each with a different outcome.

“One night, everything worked great, everyone that came (was) able to submit,” she said. “And then one night it was just a disaster and no one could get past certain things.”

Timber Creek senior left waiting for college award letters

Even students who have submitted their FAFSAs still have to contend with delays. Earlier this year, Education Department officials announced that colleges and universities wouldn’t get FAFSA data until several weeks later than usual, meaning they had to push back their timelines for getting award letters out to applicants.

Evelyn Nabil, a senior at Timber Creek, has been accepted into several colleges, but hasn’t gotten financial aid award letters from any. In a typical year, she’d have to make a decision about where she’d enroll by May 1. But colleges have pushed that deadline back this year to give students more time to decide.

Nabil said the process was frustrating. She would start the application only to have the system shut down while she was midway through. Each time, she’d have to start the process over, she said. All told, the application took about three days to fill out.

During those three days, she made daily trips to Hernandez’s office to get help figuring out what she needed, then called her parents to have them track down some piece of information to enter into the form, she said. At the same time, she was trying to stay on top of a full slate of rigorous classes and still make it to tennis practice after school, she said.

Nabil plans to pursue a pre-med degree and eventually become a doctor. Baylor University is at the top of her list, but she said the financial aid packages each school offers will be a big factor in her decision. Her older brother is already in college, and she knows her family’s budget will only stretch so far.

FWISD FAFSA completions down 50%

In the Fort Worth Independent School District, about half as many seniors had completed the FAFSA by April 5 compared to the same date last year. Christina Galanis, the district’s director of secondary student engagement, said the verification process colleges use to confirm information students include on the FAFSA is one of the biggest roadblocks this year. That process is always a challenge, she said, but the delayed release of the new form shortened the window for students to get everything done.

Most of the students in the district who have completed the form are still waiting for financial aid award letters from various colleges, Galanis said. As deadlines to enroll approach, she said she expects to see a smaller number of students go to college in the fall, because they won’t be able to make a decision in time. She also suspects a large number of students will opt to start out at a community college instead of going to a four-year school. For students who have to make a decision without a complete financial aid picture, community colleges will present a less risky option because they’re less expensive than a four-year school, she said.

Fort Worth ISD’s last day of school is a little more than a month away. But Galanis said students who haven’t been able to complete their FAFSAs by then won’t be left to figure the form out on their own. The district is working with the T3 Partnership to offer college advising through the summer, she said. Students will be able to work with advisors to finish their FAFSAs, and also on other things like residence hall applications, meal plans and meningitis shots. The district will keep its on-campus college readiness centers open throughout the summer for students who need in-person help, she said.

Students can file for financial aid after graduation

Most colleges and universities across the country, including all public schools in Texas, have pushed their deadlines back in response to the FAFSA delays. But there’s a limit to how much colleges can delay those deadlines, said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives for the National College Attainment Network. They still need to set course schedules and make decisions about residence halls, he said, and they can’t make those plans without an enrollment count for the upcoming semester.

Students who haven’t completed the application yet could be in danger of seeing their college plans deferred if they don’t do it soon, DeBaun said. Students who don’t submit the application by June 30 are less likely to go to college the following fall or go on to earn a degree, he said.

It’s important that graduating seniors understand that they can continue to apply for financial aid through the summer, DeBaun said. The problem is that they won’t have the same access to help once they graduate, he said. While students are in school, counselors are always on hand to answer questions and help them navigate roadblocks. But in most cases, there’s no one to assist them once they graduate.

In the years to come, the new, simplified FAFSA format may reduce the need for counselors to walk students through each step of the process, DeBaun said. For a relatively small subset of students, this year’s application process went more smoothly than ever. Some families reported finishing the form in as little as 15 minutes.

But for other families, the process has been a huge source of frustration, DeBaun said. Technical glitches made the process more complicated than ever, he said, and the delayed rollout drastically reduced the amount of time families had to get through the application.

Assuming federal education officials eventually get those issues worked out, most students will likely have an easier time with the application process, DeBaun said. If that happens, it could mean more students applying for financial aid and ultimately going to college, he said.

The botched FAFSA rollout isn’t the only change affecting college admissions this year. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, effectively ending affirmative action in college admissions nationwide.

DeBaun said it’s difficult to separate how those two issues have contributed to the decline in FAFSA filings this year. In a broad sense, the two changes do the same thing, he said: They lead many low-income, non-white and first-generation students to ask whether they belong in a college classroom.

“If it is not a resounding yes, oftentimes, they hear no,” he said.

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