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California's Class of 2024 Lags in Student Aid Applications, Data Shows

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Less than half of California high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — form this year, according to May 17 data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a nonprofit that aims to increase postsecondary degree access. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

This story has been updated.

Over 42,000 fewer students in California applied for federal student aid in 2024 than last year after a major overhaul of the application process resulted in serious technical problems for would-be college applicants.

Less than half of California high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — form this year, according to May 17 data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a nonprofit that aims to increase postsecondary degree access.

According to NCAN’s latest available figures, which are still being updated as more forms are processed, the California class of 2024 saw a 14% decrease in FAFSA completions compared to the same time last year. (Due to the delayed launch of the 2024-25 FAFSA the data for that year starts in January, as shown in the graph below, rather than in October as in previous years.)

The extended deadline for California state aid was May 2, although students can still apply to FAFSA to assess their potential eligibility for other types of aid.

Nationally, the drop in FAFSA applications was even higher: A 16% decrease compared to the class of 2023. California was ranked ninth in highest among U.S. states and territories for FAFSA completion, a position that has nonetheless improved in the past two weeks.

NCAN measured FAFSA completion data rather than just submissions, meaning the application has been submitted and not sent back to the student for any corrections. The nonprofit’s data comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office and includes both public and private high schools. As it continues to report the submission numbers that are still coming in, NCAN also mounted a social campaign to highlight the national FAFSA statistics lagging.

Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director, said the submission data “really raises the question about how many students actually started the application but didn’t finish, because of the glitches in the application — or because of whatever complication.”


Who’s applying for financial aid — and who’s not?

NCAN’s data also reveals demographic disparities in who’s applying for financial aid in California.

Low-income schools, defined as schools where at least half of the students are qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch, saw a FAFSA completion rate of 47%. This means, over 165,000 lower-income students did not complete the FAFSA this year compared to 2023 — a 15% decrease. By comparison, higher-income schools saw a 56% completion rate among their students and a 13% decrease from last year.

The data is similar when examining completions among students of color in California.

Less than half of seniors in “high-minority” schools (which NCAN defines as enrolling 40% or more Black and/or Hispanic students) completed the FAFSA for 2024 — a 15% drop in this same group from last year.

By contrast, a higher percentage of seniors in “low-minority schools” — 56% — completed the FAFSA this year, with a smaller decrease of 12% in 2023.

Monitoring the relative levels of FAFSA completion matters, DeBaun said, because the numbers give an idea of how many young people intend to enroll in college in the fall.

“When we see FAFSA completion go up, we see immediate college enrollment also go up,” he said.

For mixed-status students, a particular burden

As school counselors like Piedmont Hills’ Jill Shoopman can attest, applying to the FAFSA is already a dreaded process for most high school seniors who aim to attend postsecondary institutions.

But the bungled rollout had Shoopman fearing that many high school students would give up trying to complete the form entirely and miss out on aid they could be qualified for, especially those who need it most.

Like many in similar positions, Shoopman saw the particular impact on students from California’s mixed-status families. Mixed-status students found themselves blocked from completing the FAFSA application if one of their parents didn’t have a Social Security number due to their immigration status. Shoopman recalled how one of her favorite students, a senior from a mixed-status family, would stop by her office each week to anxiously ask, “Is there a fix? Is there a fix?”

“She understands, even at her young age, how important this is,” Shoopman said.

Counselors, high schools and college-prep organizations say the delayed rollout of the relaunched FAFSA — a revamp intended to streamline and simplify the process for students — was no big surprise. Further complicating the process were glitches with Social Security numbers and instances where students could not create accounts entirely, which created real panic.

The application launched on Dec. 30, 2023, but students from mixed-status families could only complete the application starting March 12.

“I just don’t know how they didn’t anticipate that [mixed-status families not being able to apply] was going to be a concern,” Shoopman said — especially in a state like California, where 20% of Californians under 18 are either undocumented or living with undocumented family members.

Families, support staff and schools under pressure

For David Alvarez, the director of college readiness and success at Alpha Public Schools in San José, it was “the worst financial aid application season that I’ve ever experienced” in his 15 years in education.

“I know that us as a team, as well as fellow educators, tried our absolute best to improve completion rates from years to the next,” Alvarez said. “But the system [this year] didn’t really allow for it.”

Alvarez’s school has a large number of first-generation and Latino students, he explained. In preparation for the application season, the school prepared FAFSA workshops and early morning hours for seniors to work on their application to provide specialized attention to students — trying to work around the complications of the form.

During those workshops, Alvarez managed the growing frustrations of students and their parents. He said some had taken time off work to attend a workshop and faced unanswered questions exacerbated by FAFSA glitches.

“The experience has become a nightmare when you realize that applications weren’t working properly, that you didn’t always have the answers when you were troubleshooting things … and that created a lot of distrust from students and parents,” he said.

“Sometimes, they might see it as, ‘Hey, you don’t have the answers. You might be incompetent. You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Alvarez said. “And the reality is: It’s so much bigger than us.”

“Our community is losing out on both the time and the money that, let’s be real, we didn’t really have in the first place to begin with,” he said.

Oftentimes, students would question the purpose of even doing the application, Alvarez said. Some four-year eligible students instead planned to go to community college, potentially overloading the community college system, which is unsure who will be attending in the fall.

“With a delay in FAFSA, it delayed the ability for schools to present financial aid award letters,” Alvarez said. The FAFSA delays also delayed schools’ ability to present financial aid award letters, Alvarez said — meaning that “ultimately, students and parents can’t confidently select the institution that they want to go to — because they’re just unaware of how much money they will receive.”

While many states extended their college application deadlines, this led to institutions not knowing who would attend their school in the fall. According to DeBaun, this impacts course schedules, staffing and residential halls.

“There is a limit to how far back institutions can push these deadlines and still be prepared to receive students for the fall semester,” he said. Shoopman also said it can keep students on college waitlists in limbo as others consider if they can afford to enroll.

“For students in California, or anywhere in America right now, we should be concerned about what full enrollment would look like based on the FAFSA completion declines that we’re seeing,” DeBaun said.

Examining the reasons behind FAFSA declines

One factor to consider in this year’s sharp fall in FAFSA submissions is the record number of applications the state saw last year, according to California State Aid Commission (CSAC) spokesperson Shelveen Ratnam.

In 2023, the agency’s widespread “All in for FAFSA/CA Dream” campaign promoted awareness of FAFSA, encouraging California high schools to have all students fill out an application or actively opt out.

Like every state that also implemented this policy, California saw a large jump in FAFSA completion numbers last year, DeBaun said. By September 2023, 62% of the class of 2023 had completed the FAFSA — compared to 58% of the class of 2022 in the same period that year.

States that have traditionally done well with FAFSA completion, like California and Texas, are also seeing major drops this year, DeBaun said. However, for him, the delay in this year’s FAFSA application is at least partly responsible for these marked decreases.

“Think about it this way: Every day, [successful states] are relatively more effective at getting more students to complete a FAFSA than their peers,” DeBaun said. “So when you take 90 days out of the FAFSA cycle … every single one of those days, relatively speaking, costs that state more in terms of FAFSA completion.”

“The class of 2024 [has] just had a much smaller window in which to complete the FAFSA,” DeBaun said — and all the while — “the fall semester isn’t getting pushed back.”

Ratnam described the trend in data — and the technical difficulties that students faced — as “definitely alarming.”

“[Financial aid is] one of the most important things that students or families think about when it comes to deciding if they want to pursue higher education,” Ratnam said.

While Alvarez noted that FAFSA submission numbers have increased in the last weeks, likely helped by the fact that the previous glitches with the form had been fixed, he said that distrust of the process among students and their families is still noticeable.

As this winter’s initial FAFSA errors might have been resolved, “tell that to someone who’s come to the high school five, six, seven, eight times already,” Alvarez said. “And that’s really what we’re facing: Just re-energizing the students and the parents.

“As difficult as it is, it has long-term impacts, and we want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Do students still have time to apply?

While the May 2 deadline for in-state aid has passed, CSAC is encouraging students to still apply to the FAFSA to see if they qualify for other types of financial aid.

The Cal Grant Community College Entitlement Award FAFSA application is due on Sept. 2

Alvarez said the FAFSA is often the first college-related struggle students face. But he tells his students to apply for financial aid to keep the door open to college enrollment.

And to parents, Alvarez said his message on the importance of financial aid’s role in getting a student to college often comes when their children are graduating: “They’re literally transcending their circumstances; they’re narrowing that achievement gap,” he said.

“They’re breaking barriers for their families.”


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