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FAFSA forms buried under other items on a messy desk.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | SDI Productions and Richard Stephen/Getty Images

Almost as soon as the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) launched in December, Axel Valencia logged in.

A first-generation student and the child of undocumented immigrants, Valencia, currently a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had had a hard enough time with the federal aid form he filled out to get to college in 2022. After months of disquieting news about the new form’s many delays, he made sure he was on the student aid website early—over his winter break, months before most college students began thinking about renewing their FAFSA.

He immediately found himself waylaid by technical errors. First, the website kept shutting down, a common phenomenon in the first few weeks of the form’s rocky soft launch. Then, like many students from families with mixed citizenship status, he was unable to add his father, who does not have a social security number, as a second signatory; on the previous form, his mother’s had been enough. That issue stretched on for months.

Finally, after his cousin discovered a workaround that sounds like a video game cheat—“at step three you go back to the first step, then click the forward button three times, fast,” he explained—Valencia was able to submit a working FAFSA in late April. He’s expecting his new aid package by July.

“[Completing] this year’s FAFSA was one of the most tedious and panicky experiences,” Valencia said. “I was scared because federal aid is crucial for my family … if I wasn’t able to submit the FAFSA, chances are that I was going to drop out of UCSB or transfer.”

Much of the attention on the troubled FAFSA rollout has focused on improving completion rates and communication with first-year applicants and their families. But the debacle has had just as great an impact on current students, who are counting on continued financial aid to plan their fall semester.

“Normally, returning students start receiving financial aid packages around now so that they know that they’re able to continue their education,” said CJ Powell, director of advocacy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “It’s crucial that we don’t lose sight of those students.”

Many, like Valencia, feel they’ve been largely ignored—if they’re even aware of the challenges to begin with. A survey conducted earlier this month by Inside Higher Ed and The Generation Lab found that 21 percent of current college students don’t know about changes to the FAFSA; half of those students currently receive federal aid.

Joseph Montgomery, associate vice provost for enrollment management at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has been frustrated by the emphasis on new students’ FAFSA issues. At his institution—a historically Black university with roots in the state’s underserved rural communities—most students receive at least some federal aid. He’s ramping up institutional efforts to help them navigate the new form, but he’s concerned returning students across the country are getting short shrift.

The FAFSA renewal process for continuing students used to be simple, Montgomery said— largely a matter of rubber-stamping any adjustments to their aid. This year, many returning students practically have to re-file their FAFSA from scratch, as Valencia learned, thanks to new requirements such as two-parent verification.

Even for students who don’t have to make any big changes to their form, the process is taking longer. Montgomery said his financial aid officers hold one-on-ones with continuing students around this time of year, which typically take 10 to 15 minutes; this year, they’ve been stretching to over half an hour on average.

“What we’re actually seeing is a massive problem with our returning students because the new FAFSA has different requirements that they are unaware of and unprepared for,” he said. “Renewal is actually more complicated than ever … Going back and getting a parent involved who didn’t need to be before? Revising your tax verification section? Those things are hard.”

Students walk down steps on a campus

Students at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU where over 70 percent of current students receive federal aid.

Courtesy of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Retention Worries Mount

The share of incoming students completing a FAFSA has lagged far behind last year’s rate—a gap of 15.5 percent as of May 17, according to the National College Attainment Network. The setback is raising concerns about a sizable enrollment dip come fall, especially among low-income and first-generation students entering college. Resources and media attention have been heaped on the problem; last month the Education Department pumped $50 million into a last-ditch completion effort, and school districts are ramping up their outreach.

But comparatively few resources have been devoted to helping students like Valencia, who are struggling to fill out the form while juggling coursework and registering for classes they’re unsure they’ll be able to afford. There’s also very little national data on current student FAFSA completion rates, yet their struggles present just as great an enrollment and access challenge for institutions as first-time students.

“The vast majority of FAFSAs that get filed every year are from continuing students,” said Katharine Meyer, a fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Brown Center on Education Policy. “The challenge is we don’t have good data on FAFSA filing for those students … that’s usually pretty slow to come out; we don’t even have last year’s yet.”

Meyer published a report this month on the FAFSA rollout’s potential enrollment impact, which is one of the first to attempt to take stock of the current student completion gap. She said she used “back-of-the-envelope math” to make estimates, and determined that they are about a million FAFSAs behind last year.

Powell fears a dramatic increase in attrition rates for low-income students over the summer, a phenomenon usually called “summer melt” by admissions and financial aid professionals.

“Are we even calling it summer melt this year?” he said. “If we only get to summer melt numbers, we should count ourselves lucky … it could be more like glacial runoff.”

Meyer said the changes from the old Estimated Family Contribution to the new Student Aid Index are “a good reason” for current students to file early this year; many may be surprised—some pleasantly—by their updated aid package. While she predicts the new FAFSA will have some impact on persistence rates, she doesn’t think it will be as pronounced as the effect on incoming student enrollment.

But she is worried about low-income students waiting until they receive their aid estimates in late summer to register for classes, which could preclude them from getting into courses required for their majors and potentially delay their graduation.

“We might not see all of these effects in the aggregate but they’re very real for the individual students and have a real impact on whether they’re going to be able to complete a degree and get everything that they can out of their college experience,” she said.

Outreach and Assistance

Valencia said he felt like he was left to grapple with the unfamiliar FAFSA renewal process on his own. He waited weeks to talk to his UCSB- assigned financial aid adviser, who, while attentive and well-meaning, could do little for him other than direct him back to the flooded Education Department helplines he’d already been calling. He faced the unenviable task of guiding his parents through the renewal process himself.

“There was a lot of indirect communication, where they would send email reminders that got lost in your inbox. There was not a lot of transparency or actual guidance,” he said. “I was basically leading my parents by the hand, and they were confused and agitated by the whole thing. Meanwhile, I was also just trying to get through the school year.”

He’s not alone in his frustration. Thirty-three percent of student respondents to the Inside Higher Ed survey said their college communicated “somewhat or very poorly” about the new form, including 36 percent of low-income students.

Meyer noted that financial aid offices have a lot on their plate this year, given the FAFSA struggles of first-time students, and it’s “hard to impose these expectations” on institutions with small financial aid staff.

“My best hope is that with the Department’s latest push to support FAFSA completion, a nontrivial amount of that money is focused on college access organizations that have partnerships with colleges, and that some of those grants target current students,” she said.

Montgomery wants to make sure his students already enrolled at NC A&T don’t feel abandoned. He’s setting up a FAFSA support center and hiring summer help to assist his financial aid officers. Students begin with a two-step process: first, a one-on-one consultation to determine what changes might affect them and what steps they need to take for renewal, followed by a scheduled Zoom call with them and both parents or contributors to walk through the process.

Montgomery said that at NC A&T, where over half of students are Pell-eligible and 70 percent receive federal aid, 1,700 out of a total of 11,000 students have registered for classes but have yet to fill out a FAFSA. That number is likely to balloon once more students start registering, which normally doesn’t begin in earnest until the summer.

“We could help 200 to 300 students a day fill out the form, but we might add another 300 students to the list that same day,” he said. “The biggest fear I have is we’re not quick enough, and it becomes too much of a headache for students, and they just drop out.”

Powell said information from colleges has been “inconsistent across the sector.” HBCUs like NC A&T and other institutions with large Pell-eligible populations have done a “more robust job” communicating about FAFSA changes than many, he said. On the other hand, some colleges with fewer Pell students and more cash on hand have alleviated concerns by promising to fill in any gaps between last year’s form and this year’s.

Oakland University, a regional public institution in Michigan with a Pell-eligible population of 30 percent, made that vow back in October. Nicole Boelk, the university’s director of financial aid and scholarships, said the institution wanted to take the pressure off students, who had enough on their plates during the school year.

“There was such a buzz of panic when the FAFSA was first delayed, and we wanted to make sure students could relax and focus,” she said. “We understand it could have some good retention benefits. But really, we knew it was the right thing to do.”

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