FAFSA application delays leave Triangle universities and students concerned

Michael Perchick Image
Wednesday, February 7, 2024
FAFSA problems leave Triangle universities and students concerned
An overhaul of the FAFSA process that's supposed to make things easier is doing the opposite so far.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A new version of the FAFSA form was meant to ease the process for students. Instead, it's creating unexpected challenges and delays in students learning crucial information.

"The FAFSA application was meant to help students like me to be able to have access to higher education. But I feel like now it's just kind of like a roadblock like that's getting in the way of my dreams," said Carlos Ventura, a senior at Christian Community School in Wilson.

Ventura, who has applied to several schools in North Carolina, hopes to study mechanical engineering in college.

"Being a child of Mexican immigrants, we don't really come from money as they would say. My parents, they do pretty much any job they can do. My dad works pretty much every day trying to earn as much money as he can so that he can put it off for us to get a better education," said Ventura.

FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Student Aid, is used to determine eligibility for federal aid. For students like Ventura and Katie Torres Munoz, a senior at Northern Nash High, it's critical in determining whether they can afford to attend a specific university.

"I believe that if I got a little bit of help on FAFSA, it would take a huge weight off of my family's and my life, huge weight off of our shoulders because we are a low-income family. So it would be a huge help. Without it, I believe I would be struggling a little bit," said Torres Munoz.

Last week, Munoz learned she had been accepted early action into NC State.

"I saw the confetti and it was just immediate tears and it was a great moment," said Torres Munoz, who plans on studying architecture and civil engineering.

These delays are a result of an error in the new version of the form which needed to be corrected. Instead of colleges and universities receiving the information in January, the Department of Education believes they will receive it in March, creating a far tighter timeline to deliver information to students.

"Hitting this obstacle of them not being able to complete the FAFSA, it starts creating the idea of deterring them from pursuing higher education. So my biggest fear is these students will give up and feel that they won't be able to complete the FAFSA," said Elizabeth Herrera, the co-founder of Casa Azul de Wilson.

The nonprofit is working with dozens of students to help complete FAFSA forms.

"It is extremely difficult for these students because now (because) not only will their decision letters and their financial aid packages be pushed back, but then it's like they will have a smaller window of deciding what school," Herrera explained.

Herrera supports pushing back "Decision Day" to give universities more time to process the forms and ensure students have all the information they need to make a decision. Officials at NC State and NC Central tell ABC 11 that no alterations to the schedule have been made thus far, as they continue to process the update from the Department of Education.

"We are really looking at evaluating all the options that we have available. I would also say that it's not a simple decision. There's other aspects of beyond the decision that's important for students to be prepared for. They still have registration for classes, advising, housing, all of those things that (serve as) dominoes. And as you move one domino, you've got to figure out how to move the rest of the dominoes. So again, we're looking at evaluating all the options and trying to help students and families as best we can," explained Don Hunt, Senior Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at NC State.

"A decision has not been rendered regarding extending the decision day at North Carolina Central University. We're investing time engaging prospective students with updates and anticipated timelines to allow students and parents to be informed and appropriately plan," said Dr. Sharon Oliver, the Director of Scholarships and Student Aid at NC Central.

In the meantime, they are encouraging students - both current and prospective -- to reach out directly with any questions.

"We offer financial aid one-on-one sessions, we offer group sessions, we offer Q and A's as well as webinars," said Dr. Oliver.

"Families can also fill out paper FAFSA forms that they're having trouble online, but it's just going to be a timing conversation," explained Hunt.

According to myFuture NC, in 2022, the statewide FAFSA completion rate was 58%.

"We can guide them through the net price calculator really is there to help give them the general sense, and then we can help them determine how does that fit in their financial plans for the student or the family," said Hunt.

The National College Attainment Network notes that FAFSA applications for high school seniors are down 57% compared to last cycle, though the gap has closed considerably over the past month.

"I think when these hiccups are resolved, students are going to have an amazing experience completing the financial aid application, likely in 15 minutes," said Dr. Oliver.

Advocates believe the new FAFSA program, which was overhauled due to Congressional action, will ultimately serve as a positive to students, making it easier to access aid.

"Sixteen thousand more North Carolina students will now qualify for the Pell Grants, which is money that doesn't need to be paid back, and 45,000 more North Carolina students will now qualify for the maximum Pell Grant award. That's good news for our students," said Kathy Hastings, the Director of Outreach and Communications with the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.

Nationally, the updates are expected to allow more than 600,000 students to qualify for Pell Grants, while also making it easier for students who are currently enrolled in schools but never applied for FAFSA.

"The good news is there's fewer questions for students to have to answer in this FAFSA and wherever it's possible, the pieces of the form that can be automated, in other words, pulling information from an IRS tax return, for instance, all of that information is being automated. It should result in fewer errors, which means hopefully fewer students being flagged for verification and a more streamlined process moving forward," said Hastings.