Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

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A biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Short-term bad, long-term good, for new FAFSA

01: Postcards

Rural students have struggled in recent years to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, a key indicator for college-going among high schoolers.

This year has been even more difficult than usual for students across the board. The new FAFSA — shortened to just 36 questions as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020 — didn’t come out until the end of December, as opposed to October, as is typical. 

A month later, the Education Department announced it needed to make adjustments to take the latest inflation data into account, meaning colleges won’t receive them until the first half of March at the earliest. 

Mixed-status families currently can’t even complete the form online, which is required to access federal financial aid. And submission rates for this year so far are 57% lower than 2023, according to the National College Attainment Network. 

That led to a significant outcry from legislators, with 107 lawmakers recently penning a letter to the Department of Education noting that those delays “will most impact the students that need aid most,” including “students from rural backgrounds,” among others. 

How will rural students be affected by the FAFSA changes and delays?

1. Students considering selective schools will be affected most

Some colleges, including the University of Virginia, Oregon State and Kent State in Ohio, have moved back their enrollment deadlines because of the FAFSA issues. That may help some rural students that are considering four-year universities, giving them more time to weigh their financial choices after learning if they qualify for Pell Grants and federal loans to help pay their tuition. 

However, rural students have historically had fewer educational resources and support to help them navigate the tricky application process, and are also less likely to have parents who graduated college and can help them.

It’s a challenge Evelyn Irigoyen-Aguierre, an advisor at Garden City High in Kansas, often sees with her students, many of whom are first-generation Mexican Americans like herself and have few people to turn to for help: “From my family, friendships, my relationships, the support wasn’t there,” she told me last year.

Even with the possibility of some timelines being extended, these delays could make the application process even more complicated at a time when many rural students already grapple with whether pursuing a degree is worth the cost.

2. The rural trend toward community colleges may limit the damage

Juniors and seniors at rural high schools are more likely to take dual-enrollment courses and are more likely to graduate high school than their nonrural peers. Still,, studies have repeatedly shown that rural students are less likely to attend four-year universities

Rural students considering community colleges likely won’t be as impacted by the FAFSA delays. Two-year schools tend to have rolling application deadlines, which leads many students to wait until June or even July to enroll anyway.

“Our students might not feel as much of a pinch as the students applying to selective schools, where there is a deadline to decide,” says Jody Burchett, a senior financial aid officer at Zane State College in the Appalachian region of southwest Ohio. 

Rural community colleges may also have more flexibility to help their students in ways larger institutions may not. While other colleges may make completing the FAFSA a pre-condition for applying for institutional aid, Zane State can offer students certain book and tuition scholarships regardless of Pell eligibility.

That individual touch may appeal to students who were already worried about paying for a four-year university, and may not want to wait for FAFSA aid to make a decision about their plans for the fall. 

“Since we are small, we have the ability to move with where there is need,” Burchett says.

3. Farm families can set some of their fears aside

When I wrote about the FAFSA changes last April, there were significant concerns that many rural students would be ineligible for federal financial aid due to the elimination of an exemption for farming and small business income.

In response, FAFSA administrators have since clarified that only income from “investment farms” should be included in those calculations, adding that students won’t need to report “the value of a family farm that the student’s parents live on and operate.”  

There are more than 2 million family farms in the United States, and only about 5% of them make more than $1 million in revenue. Without the clarification, rural students may have been forced to report tractors and other farm recruitment as assets, despite the fact that those materials can’t easily be sold to pay for their college costs.

While there still may be a more concrete legislative fix needed in the future, that clarification “is a good approach to preserving the pathway to college for students living on family farms,” says Frank Ballmann, federal relations director at the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid programs, which lobbied for the fix.

4. The new FAFSA should help rural students in the long run

While there have been some major growing pangs, most educators believe the FAFSA changes will benefit students over time if it ends up being easier to complete.

“When you’re trying to take on something this big, there are going to be delays, there are going to be bugs, so we understand,” says Terry Baldwin, chief financial officer for Zane State.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.