College & Workforce Readiness

The New FAFSA Is a Major Headache. Some High Schools Are Trying to Help

Education Department promises FAFSA fixes by March 15
By Elizabeth Heubeck — March 11, 2024 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has said March 15 will be a turning point for the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, originally dubbed the “Better FAFSA,” which has been plagued with delays and technical snafus.

That’s the date the department promises to begin releasing students’ submitted FAFSA forms to colleges and to complete fixes to glitches preventing applicants with one or more FAFSA ‘contributors’ (parent or guardian) without a Social Security Number from completing the form electronically.

These systemwide delays and glitches have been blamed for plummeting FAFSA submissions, down this year by approximately 57 percent as of January 26, compared to numbers for last year’s high school seniors at that time, according to the National College Attainment Network.

The government in February announced efforts to shore up support for its fledging new FAFSA. But these recent initiatives promised new support primarily to college financial aid offices—not FAFSA applicants or high school staff helping students navigate the form. As a result, even determined and resource-savvy high school staff members are struggling to help their most vulnerable students complete the form.

Here’s a look at the resources, both internal and external, that some high schools are relying on to help students navigate the FAFSA, and how a process that was supposed to ease the complexity of applying for financial aid has complicated things for students.

Incentives for FAFSA completion aren’t easing the process

Connecticut’s Middletown High School takes FAFSA completion seriously. One way it supports this goal is by participating in the FAFSA Challenge, a statewide campaign to improve rates of completion of the financial aid form.

The Connecticut education department and the governor’s office launched the FAFSA Challenge in 2019. Schools’ eligibility is based on prior school FAFSA completion data, percentages of students receiving free- or reduced-price meals, and senior class size. Participating schools receive support from microgrants of between $1,000 and $15,000 and benefit from other resources, including coaching through the RISE Network, a nonprofit that partners with high schools in historically marginalized communities to support students’ high school and postsecondary success.

The initiative’s microgrants fund, among other things, FAFSA coaches, who are school employees who work outside regular school hours to support students with FAFSA completion. The money also supports incentives to get students to complete the FAFSA—like weekly raffles for items like prom tickets or a free graduation cap and gown. Other states, including Arizona and Florida, also offer programs designed to improve FAFSA completion rates.

This year, 54 of Connecticut’s 55 eligible public schools are participating in the FAFSA Challenge. Last year, the state’s 57 participating schools improved FAFSA completion rates by nearly seven percentage points over the prior year, from 51.8 percent of seniors in 2022 to 58.7 percent in 2023. But this year is not the same. Obstacles to the 2024-2025 FAFSA threaten to reduce overall completion rates for this year’s seniors.

“This year’s work looks very different,” said Abby Marcantonio, a senior postsecondary success coach with the RISE Network. “Applicants are running into so many issues. There’s been a thousand times more anxiety this year,” she said.

Jennifer Melnik, a college and career school counselor at Connecticut’s Middletown High School and a past FAFSA coach, agrees. Middletown has participated in the FAFSA Challenge for multiple years, and the school typically averages a 75 percent FAFSA completion rate among its estimated 300 seniors. But when interviewed in February, Melnik said only about 42 percent of the school’s seniors had completed the form to date. She noted that students whose parent or parents don’t have a Social Security Number can’t yet complete the FAFSA electronically.

The mid-March resolution promised by federal officials is also the “on-time” deadline for the University of Connecticut’s FAFSA completion. Funding for financial assistance can run out if students submit their applications after this deadline, said Melnik. As of March 11, the university had not extended its FAFSA deadline.

Support from community college finance pros and Latino nonprofit aren’t enough

In New Mexico, tuition at two- and four-year public colleges is free to qualified applicants, but students still must complete the FAFSA to qualify. The same applies to additional federal grants that can help with other college costs, such as books, materials, housing, and transportation. And at Aztec High School in Aztec, N.M., FAFSA completion is a graduation requirement.

Most years, an estimated 98 percent of the Aztec High’s seniors complete the FAFSA, said the school’s college and career counselor Catherine Olson. But she estimates that only 40 percent of students have met that milestone this year. “This year has been extra difficult,” Olson said.

Olson continues to lean on the patchwork of support that she’s relied on in past years. Enlace New Mexico offers weekly help sessions and works directly with students and parents to navigate the FAFSA. The school also holds several evening events during the school year which brings in financial assistance professionals from the local community college to assist with the FAFSA. Usually, students and parents can sit down with the community college representative and complete the form on site.

This is Olson’s 10th year at the school. Most years, about 90 percent of students who attend the FAFSA workshop evening sessions complete the forms during that time. This year, only about 50 percent of attendees have been able to do so. Olson explained that for students whose parents do not have a Social Security Number, FAFSA completion continues to be a challenge.

“Students are coming to me at least weekly,” Olson said. “They ask me: ‘Will my parents be able to fill out the form?’”

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