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Applying For Student Aid Was Supposed to Be Easier This Year. It Wasn’t

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An illustration showing a pair of hands holding a yellow sheet of paper that reads FAFSA. In the background, a number of figures representing family members talk.
Completing FAFSA nearly always means involving your family in discussions about finances. For many students, that's far from a simple conversation. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Applying for student aid this year was supposed to be easier for incoming college students, with a more simplified application process for FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. 

But technical problems and missed deadlines for the new form’s rollout has led to disastrous results for students, especially those who are undocumented or come from mixed status families. These issues are likely a big reason why California saw a major drop in FAFSA applications for the Class of 2024.

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Applying for college is scary enough, and this year, applying for student aid felt nearly impossible for many.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That’s because the federal student aid application, known as Fafsa, was plagued with tech problems and delays, leading to nearly 40,000 fewer California students who’ve applied for student aid this year compared to last year.

Liz: Not being able to fill it out. And like maybe not knowing what your aid is going to be and like notes having to decide, that’s pretty scary.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, how the problems with Fafsa have affected students all over the state.

Nisa Khan: Fafsa is hugely important because it basically determines if a student can go to college. Is college affordable?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Nisa Khan is an audience engagement reporter for KQED.

Nisa Khan: Fafsa, for those who don’t know, is free. Application for Federal Student Aid is a form that people can complete so they can qualify for federal grants, work study funds, loans. Many states and colleges, they use a pass information to determine your eligibility for state and school aid. So there’s just a lot of layers here and a lot of access to funds basically to go to post-secondary education.

Nisa Khan: It’s very long. It’s complicated, is a stressful form. Everyone hates doing it. It’s like overall like around 100 questions. You need tax information about your parents. For some students, like the first time they’re kind of running into this. So yeah, it’s it’s usually considered like a big dreadful process basically.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know you talked with one student who filled out a Fafsa app this year. Can you introduce me to Liz and tell me a little bit about who she is?

Nisa Khan: Liz is a rising junior who’s living in Berkeley. She wants to study data science with the emphasis on business analytics. So super smart. Because I can’t do that. Liz is currently in Laney College, but was hoping to go back to UC Berkeley for this coming fall. Liz prefers to go by her first name for immigration financial privacy. Liz’s parents are undocumented, and, she has completed the form successfully for two years.

Liz: Usually my Fafsa process is about. It is about a day of sitting down and getting all the taxes together.

Nisa Khan: This year took her by surprise.

Liz: At the time it took me since the start of January, all the way until the end of March, which is something I wasn’t really expecting.

Nisa Khan: Right? And now she, this year, she basically just kept not being able to complete the form because of her parents immigration status.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about that. So she’s. I mean, this is not her first rodeo. Yeah. She’s very familiar with this form. But this year it was just different for her. What about it was different?

Nisa Khan: Typically when Liz filled out the Fafsa account, basically she didn’t have to make an account for her parents as well.

Liz: So it was always that whenever you don’t have socials, your parents will have Social Security. Then they never had to make an account. So this time they were saying, all parents need an account, whether they have Social Security or not, and it just wouldn’t let you move forward. You just kind of were stuck.

Nisa Khan: So Liz didn’t say that. Like, oh yeah, like I had to call, try to call the Fafsa helpline. And it was just like the lines were so bogged down. Liz said that she had to take time off work, and then she said classes to figure this out, too. And it was just became a huge hassle, a huge process.

Liz: So it’s just really frustrating because I know how easy A has been before, at least for me. I would get off of work at five, like, I don’t really have a lot of time to call that.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So what did Liz do about it?

Nisa Khan: She describes the scene, of like laying in bed, just like scrolling through TikTok and getting a bunch of, like, people in the same, like, situation being like, oh, God, what do I do? Oh, God, what do I do?

Liz: I just saw that someone said, like, this worked for me. Like, you have to do this or you just have to keep on trying and keep on trying. So I was like, this is the last attempt on my phone and had opened up Safari, and I was like, I’m going to try this. I tried everything else. I just kept on doing the steps that they had, like said in the comments, and it was just over and over, just attempting again and again and again until I finally was able to get in.

Nisa Khan: And basically she needed to get her advice from like basically her peers on like TikTok, because people couldn’t really answer questions in real life because of the glitches and because there’s just not a lot information going around.

Liz: They just thought it was a miracle I was even able to get any.

Nisa Khan: The exact TikTok that Liz used to kind of figure out the key to like, you know, figuring out the Fafsa like she doesn’t have access to any more. The profile one private. She did cosign a couple of like, like from the same kind of community, the same people, the same trend of people. Just like trying to share as many tips as they can.

Tiktok Audio: If anyone you know or yourself have parents that are undocumented and you’re having trouble completing Fafsa. This happened to me yesterday and parents side. When I invited them, I couldn’t find the form.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, how does she describe how all of this made her feel?

Nisa Khan: I think she does it frustrated.

Liz: I don’t know, I feel like I should be able to get this information easily from, you know, someone that I should trust that like Berkeley or even like just like anyone FSA. But it was just someone else who I don’t know the name of and like their profile or nothing, it’s just a random user online who I probably would never meet, and they helped me out so much to be able to fill this out. So it does feel a little bit crazy that that’s how it happened.

Nisa Khan: And it is. It sounds frustrating because no one who kind of had an official like an official in like the higher education world just didn’t have any answers because they also probably were frustrated, too, because a lot of it was just like such. It really does come from like the federal government and like nobody really knew what was going on.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, yeah, I can only imagine how stressful that must have been. But I want to talk about why this was such a disaster. I mean, why was fast, such a mess for students like Liz: this year?

Nisa Khan: So the federal government decided to make the Fafsa simpler this year by relaunching as a streamline. Shorten cut down the questions to less than 50 questions. But that rollout just had a lot of problems. Counselors, high schools.

Nisa Khan: They already knew that the new Fafsa was going to be delayed to the end of December. So like it’s usually launched in October, we already knew that was going to be delayed. That was something that people were anticipating. But when it did get launched in December, they were just major tech glitches.

Nisa Khan: So, for example, in January, the Department of Education and the federal government confirmed that they needed to fix a major mistake where the Fafsa was like calculating how the calculated like financial student needs. People weren’t even understanding how much they were getting or qualifying for.

Nisa Khan: Fixing this glitch like setback deadlines is a huge mess. And then the other major glitch was for students like Liz, whose parents do not have a social security number. They basically just couldn’t finish the form. They just couldn’t keep going on working on the form.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So it sounds like there was a combination of technical issues that then led to deadline issues that then led to just a lot of confusion.

Nisa Khan: I was covering this before the actual launch, and people in the higher education world, they were so excited to hear that there was a new face out there like, oh my God, this is going to change things because it was really annoying. Everyone was excited. But then it happened. And I think when people like, how did it turn out like this?

Nisa Khan: Like, why did this happen? This is some reporting to the Washington Post. The administration says that lawmakers set unrealistic deadlines and were denying requests for more resources because it was kind of a lean budget, but it still kind of made a lot of people in DC really angry, too. So there’s currently a federal watchdog investigation looking into the matter, actually.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, how the botched Fafsa rollout affected students all over California. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What happened as a result of all of this? Like what is the impact been on students?

Nisa Khan: So I looked at the data from the National College Attainment Network, that is a nonprofit that aims to increase post-secondary degree access. This is Fafsa completions, not the missions. So these are Fafsa forms that had no corrections that needed to be made.

Nisa Khan: The data that we currently have doesn’t include, the experiences like students like lives right now. It focuses on the class of 2024. So high school seniors. So as of May 24th, there was a 14% decrease nationally among students in a high school class of 2024.

Nisa Khan: In California, there was a 13% decrease from the same time last year, which is in, raw numbers, over 39,000 students, fewer students from the same time last year in this academic year who have not completed the Fafsa.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And how do we know that this is because of changes to the application and not just people not applying for Fafsa?

Nisa Khan: Sure. I think that’s a super fair question because we don’t know for sure. But I did end up talking to experts and counselors. So people are kind of familiar with, like the thing.

Bill DeBaun: I was going to attribute these to clients. So one specific thing, it would be the delayed opening of the Fafsa.

Nisa Khan: Bill DeBaun, is, National College Attainment Networks, senior director. He said it was kind of the delay. The Fafsa was usually around October. It launched in December. That delayed had led to fewer applications.

Bill DeBaun: When you take that number of days away from high performing states, every single one of those days, relatively speaking, costs that state more in terms of Fafsa completion.

Nisa Khan: California is doing really well when it comes to asset completions last year, and then you have this year where, like so many kids ran into trouble. I think that’s another thing to keep in mind is that, like they were doing really well. It was like a really good, like polished machine, basically last year.

Nisa Khan: For counselors, they really emphasize this. It was the glitches. It was just the idea that, like students, we just asked people to finish it. They went to Yale, started they had all these problems, and they kept saying, like, I’m just so afraid kids are just not gonna even finish that. They’re not even going to bother.

David Alvarez: It’s been the worst financial aid application season that I’ve ever been a part of as a working professional.

Nisa Khan: David Alvarez: is the director of college readiness and success at powerful public schools in San Jose. He’s been working at education for many years.

David Alvarez: We understand that this college going process is a decision not just up to students, but as a family. It’s a family decision, right?

Nisa Khan: One thing he emphasizes, I like it just students didn’t know basically what was the next step. They couldn’t plan the next step for him. They’re having workshop nights and they’re having like, you know, so many like nights where they’re inviting. And parents, you describe like people being like, oh, you don’t know what you’re doing. He’s like, it’s so much bigger than him, right?

David Alvarez: You typically have those answers for students, you know, you know, the frequently asked questions. And this year the frustration comes with, hey, there’s a glitch in the system, how do I fix it? And all across the college success team that we are, it’s we don’t have those answers.

Jill Shoopman: It’s just been really difficult for our students. And and what worries me is I think a lot of them are starting to give up.

Nisa Khan: Jill Shuman is a counselor at Piedmont Hills and choose to say again, like she was so worried that this was going to discourage students from just not even completing or starting the Fafsa. She has a story about a student who was coming from a mixed US family.

Jill Shoopman: I have one of my my, students I just adore. She she’s my my assistant.

Nisa Khan: Who would just stop by her office weekly and be like, is it fixed, is it fixed, is it fixed?

Jill Shoopman: And she would check in like constantly. Each week she check in and I would say, I’m sure just, you know, let’s let’s check again at the end of the week. Let’s check again at the end of the week. And I mean, we’ve been saying that since January. And so, you know, she was getting anxious as she kept asking, you know, is there a fix, is there a fix? And there just wasn’t any fix.

Nisa Khan: Students that really felt like they had to be like on it, right. And class and figure it out because it there are deadlines even though the deadlines are extended in the state.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: But I can also empathize with these students who are really waiting for answers in many ways, to help them figure out which college they can go to and what they can afford, and how stressful that might have been.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know we heard Liz’s story in the beginning, and we know that one group of students in particular has been really impacted by these changes to Fafsa, and those are undocumented students. Yes. Or students with mixed status families. What do we know nice about who this problem is affecting the most?

Nisa Khan: The National College Attainment Network doesn’t have data on specific student demographics, so they break it by school income and by percent of students of color. So for example, they were able to calculate it is a school like high minority or low minority by pay saw the percentage of the schools and they saw like, you know, kind of similar jobs between low minority and high minority schools.

Nisa Khan: But I do think it’s important to like flag up 20% of Californians under the age of 18 are either undocumented or living with undocumented family members from. Counselors and from people who are familiar with college success, like David Alvarez: is just like he saw like just a huge amount of burden placed on students from mixed status families, from students who may have parents who are undocumented or.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So, Nisa, is this still a problem, or has the federal government fixed the problems with the Fafsa form at this point?

Nisa Khan: So one thing that David Alvarez: said that really like kind of stuck with me. Yes, problems may have been like quote unquote like fix. They have like smooth out some of those glitches. The damage has been kind of done by the May 2nd. Deadline for in-state aid has passed.

Nisa Khan: I would point out that the California Student Aid Commission encouraged students to still apply for the Fafsa to see if they qualify for other types of financial aid. So there may be some stuff still out there. Also worth pointing out that the Cal Grant Community College Entitlement Award. That Fafsa application is due on September 2nd, so you do have a lot of time for that as well.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So there is still an opportunity to get something. If you are a student. And Tldr you should still apply. Yeah. I mean, what a mechanism. I mean, what are the stakes at the end of the day of getting this process right?

Nisa Khan: Students deciding what’s the next step? It’s a family decision, right? Students may be talking to their parents, being like, what are we going to do for the next year? Am I going to have to take on loans? Do I want to go to four year doing to go to two, a two year community college, things like that.

Nisa Khan: One thing to build upon said like really emphasize is that like Fafsa completion and that data is important to him. And the reason why they collect it in the first place is that is a good indicator of who’s going to attend college that fall and what future college enrollment it’s going to look like.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah, there’s a trickle down, effect, from these Fafsa applications, because college is so expensive and you need money to go.

Nisa Khan: Yeah, yeah.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah.

Nisa Khan: This isn’t like the sigh of two people who probably would have died on it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: We’ll need to thank you so much for breaking this down for us, I appreciate it.

Nisa Khan: Thank you so much for having me.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Nisa Khan, an audience engagement reporter for KQED. Thanks as well to KQED Carlos Cabrera Lomeli for the reporting he contributed to this story. This 33 minute conversation with Nisa was cut down and edited by Tamuna Chkareuli. Ellie Prickett-Morgan scored this episode and edited all the tape.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. Additional production support from me music courtesy of the Audio Network. The Bay is a KQED production. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Peace.

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