The federal coronavirus relief package was supposed to put money into the pockets of struggling college students so they could continue their education.

But the program has failed to reach many students because of its paperwork requirement. Metropolitan State University of Denver identified nearly 4,000 students who could be eligible for an immediate $250 to $650 emergency grant but who did not fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Only 81 of those 4,000 students have received the federal aid.

The U.S. Department of Education has added many restrictions on how colleges can distribute money, restrictions that aren’t included in the law itself. One of those is that students fill out a federal financial aid form, the FAFSA. 

Colorado ranks 47th in the nation for the percentage of high school students who complete the form, meaning students here already left millions of dollars in college assistance on the table. Now, it means fewer Colorado students are getting emergency relief that might allow them to stay in school. 

And the problem is likely to get worse, with even fewer students filling out the form this year. Many students are weighing their options as colleges and universities expect campus life to look very different during the pandemic.

Institutions like Metro State are scrambling to persuade students to fill out the form so they can get relief money. Many observers say it didn’t have to be this way.

“Congress’s intent for these funds is that they should go to the students who need it the most who are most affected by the pandemic,” said Carrie Warwick of the National College Access Network. “So we are very frustrated that they created that criteria.”

And State Higher Education Executive Officers Association President of Government Relations Tom Harnisch said the federal Education Department bungled the rollout of the funds for students.

“The money stream to students has been a complete disaster,” he said.

Federal aid, but with restrictions

The coronavirus relief bill was signed into law in late March. Schools have since complained that the $17 billion isn’t enough or as flexible as needed to respond to the impacts of the virus.

Colorado higher education institutions received $173.3 million from the federal package. 

Half of the money sent to schools could be used to mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The other half was to be sent to students. 

But the restrictions on the money has hamstrung schools in serving students.

The federal guidelines limited grants to U.S. citizens. But Adams State University, for example, doesn’t track the citizenship status of students, making the distribution of money difficult. 

MSU Denver pushed students to fill out the FAFSA. The school has been able to distribute about $5.7 million to 9,804 students, including the 81 it identified as needing to fill out the federal aid form.

Officials emailed 4,000 students who might qualify for relief aid if they filled out the federal aid form, said Thad Spaulding, MSU Denver’s financial aid and scholarship executive director. The school, however, has struggled to get many students to fill out the form.

A small response rate

Among them was MSU Denver student Dimree Asevedo, 27, who said she filled out the FAFSA form, and won a grant that paid all but $400 of her $4,200 outstanding tuition balance and cleared her financial worries.

Until then, Asevedo had paid her own way. Each semester, she’d enroll in the classes she knew she could afford with wages and tips she earned as a cocktail waitress. Then the pandemic hit.

“When I lost my job … there was the whole issue of how I was going to be able to figure out how to pay my school,” she said. “The financial aid made a big impact because it helped me get back on my feet.”

The reasons why students don’t fill out a FAFSA form are varied and complex.

When Asevedo started college, she couldn’t fill out the form without financial information from her parents, who she said weren’t involved in her life. Asevedo said she got into the habit of paying out of pocket. By the time she turned 24, when she could file independently, she said she felt like she didn’t need the form.

If students don’t fill out the form in college right away, they sometimes let the opportunity pass, Warwick said.

This year, many students are making difficult decisions whether they want to head to college. The rate of FAFSA completions across the country and in Colorado has dropped during the pandemic, according to national numbers. Rural districts are seeing pronounced drops.

Applications to renew aid also have dropped nationally. Warwick said Colorado saw about a 4% dip. And renewals for students who are some of the most financially in need dipped

At MSU Denver, Spaulding said the school saw a 28% decrease in renewals from March to May over the same time last year. From May to June, the numbers increased by about 18% over the year before. 

But the net overall numbers are down, Spaulding said, likely due to the uncertainty of whether campuses will actually reopen..

‘Absolutely unnecessary’

While Asevedo succeeded, Warwick and Harnisch stressed the federal government could have made it easier for students to access the aid. 

“This was an absolutely unnecessary policy choice by the U.S. Department of Education,” Harnisch said.

For some states, making FAFSA a requirement wasn’t as big of an issue. Tennessee and Louisiana have completion rates among high school students above 70%. 

The national average is 55%, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Colorado, however, ranks 47th in the nation in the portion of high school graduates that completed the FAFSA form — or just 43%. Last year, the state had about a 50% completion rate.

That is several percentage points below the most recent count of Colorado graduates who are estimated to head to college every year. And that doesn’t take into account the number of adults who might decide to head to school.

Schools like MSU Denver see plenty of students who enter college without federal aid. The school reaches out to help students fill out the FAFSA and get financial aid, Spaulding said. 

Spaulding said many college students who are the first in their family to attend don’t have the background in financial aid. He said the school’s job is to get students the resources they need.

“The financial aid process isn’t exactly easy for a lot of folks,” he said. “It’s sometimes the difference between abandoning ship or graduating from school almost debt free.”

Still, despite the outreach programs, Warwick said many schools like MSU Denver could not offer coronavirus aid to many students because they have failed to fill out FAFSA forms. She said staffers felt frustrated and worried that students might quit school when money ran short.

“There are so many that still needed this funding,” she said. “You know if the goal is to encourage FAFSA completion, there are many other ways to do that and ways that should be done far in advance of an emergency.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.