The number of FAFSAs submitted so far this year is 57% lower than 2023, a sign of problems with the new online form. And, poor grades can keep students who return to complete a degree from accessing financial aid.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

‘Increasingly angry and desperate calls’

Families across the country continue to struggle to complete the FAFSA, the federal application for financial aid, under the new system that’s been rife with problems and delays. 

Mixed-status families can’t complete the online form at all, as our Sneha Dey reported. The issue is supposed to be fixed later this month, according to Richard Cordray, the head of the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid, which oversees FAFSA. 

The government is aware of more than a dozen other issues, according to its tracker, some of which have been unresolved for more than a month. 

The National College Attainment Network is hearing “increasingly angry and desperate calls” from its member organizations about the technical issues and delays, Elizabeth Morgan, chief external relations officer, told me in an email. “Our students need these aid offers to decide whether they can afford college — not just to decide which college to attend,” Morgan said. 

NCAN’s data bear this frustration out: As of Jan. 26, the high school class of 2024 had submitted 57% fewer FAFSAs than the class of 2023. That shows there are a huge number of students who need support to complete the FAFSA before the school year ends, when many students lose their college-planning support system, Morgan wrote.

The government took some steps this week to help colleges prepare to process student records (which they aren’t expected to start receiving until March). Those include: 

  • Sending federal financial aid experts to advise financial aid staff at under-resourced colleges
  • Earmarking $50 million for nonprofits specializing in financial aid support
  • Creating a “concierge service” to give colleges with specific questions access to experts
  • Releasing mock versions of FAFSA data within the next two weeks 

It’s notable to me how that these efforts are really college-centric, despite the families who are clearly struggling to complete the form right now.

The department’s announcement doesn’t offer any guidance for high school counselors to provide to families struggling with the FAFSA, nor is there any mention of additional resources for “already-overwhelmed” tools such as the website chat function, Sara Urquidez, executive director of Academic Success Program, told me in an email. 

“The department’s statement addressed colleges without providing any information for the most important constituents in all of this – the students and families that must submit the form to colleges to activate federal aid programs to pursue higher education,” she wrote. 

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Brenda Brooks photographed with her son in the 1980s, when Brooks first attended college at Chicago State University. The Englewood native dropped out because of work and family obligations. The 60-year-old wants to return now to finish her degree, but is ineligible for financial aid because of her decades-old grades. Courtesy of Brenda Brooks

From Chicago: Brenda Brooks dropped out of college the first time around. Now, at 60, she wants to finish her degree.

But her grades from her first attempt at a degree make her ineligible for financial aid. It’s a problem many “some college, no degree” students face, writes our Lisa Kurian Philip.

From Cleveland: Amy Morona, at our partner Signal Cleveland, participated on a panel this week about the state of higher ed reporting. 

Watch the conversation here.

From Colorado: Colorado has large equity gaps in which residents finish college, writes Jason Gonzales at our partner Chalkbeat Colorado, citing new data from Lumina.

Just a little over a third of Hispanic residents earn a degree or certificate, compared to 65% of white and 73% of Asian residents, according to the report. (Lumina is an Open Campus funder.)

From our HBCU Student Journalism Network: Fellow Niles Garrison spoke to an economist about what antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA could mean for historically Black colleges.

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