FAFSA Lags Affect U-32 Community

This article was written by Josie Haley and Elly Budliger, juniors in the journalism class here at U-32. 

 

Current FAFSA Circumstances

 

Senior, Olivia Serrano, reading a VSAC 529 resource (Josie Haley, Chronicle)

 

“[The FAFSA] is always a frustrating thing to deal with. This year, it was so delayed, and I found it incredibly difficult to decide which schools to apply to because I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a financial statement from them.”

 

Ethan Neimark is a senior here at U-32 High School who faced difficulties with the FAFSA process this year. Ethan, along with his senior peers, was significantly impacted by delays the FAFSA caused this year. According to an April 15 article in CNBC, “many colleges and universities have postponed their enrollment commitment deadlines to May 15 or later.”

 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that prospective college students are required to complete. The FAFSA helps students and families determine future educational possibilities based on their income and the support available from the organization. This year (2023-2024) the student financial form was delayed for internal improvements.

 

According to a February 29 article in CBC, “Typically, FAFSA forms are released on Oct. 1. Once submitted, the data is sent to colleges within one to three days, and it is then used to calculate financial aid. The updated application forms came out three months late, on Dec. 30, 2023. And schools will not receive the data until the first half of March.” Given that this process has been delayed, decision-making across U-32 has been impacted. 

 

In an attempt to simplify the form process, the FAFSA question amount was reduced. Upon making these changes, students encountered a significant amount of glitches. Many applications had to be reprocessed which meant that many application results were delayed. “It took a really long time and I didn’t get anything out of it,” Said Isa Moustakes, a current senior at U-32.

 

Across the school, complaints about the FAFSA have increased. “It’s a clunky website and I was hopeful that it would be more streamlined and easier to access in general so that it’s more equitable,” said Ellen Cook, a high school counselor at U-32. This general statement unfortunately still stands, as website improvements have backfired extremely. 

 

Current FAFSA circumstances impact the majority of seniors. “I’m a firm believer that everybody needs some sort of training or education beyond high school. I’m not someone who thinks every single student here needs to go to college, because there are lots of other career paths one can take, but I do think that a high school diploma is not enough,” said Lisa LaPlante. Most seniors at U-32 are preparing for higher education, which requires them to fill out the form. “I know it exists for a reason,” said Isa. 

 

Without a concrete financial statement from the FAFSA, worries have increased. Some students, especially those in low-income households, are feeling anxious. “A lot of guys I’ve talked to have felt similarly to me that it’s unfair that this hasn’t been sorted out. They feel like they can’t even make an attempt at college. They have fear because they think at the end of the day, they’re not going to be able to afford it. I’ve noticed there’s been a major challenge in that,” said Ethan. 

 

Combating Technical Difficulties

 

Is the FAFSA serving its purpose? According to a publication from February 13 the U.S. Department of Education announced, “The Department’s top priority is to ensure students can access the maximum financial aid possible to help them pursue their higher education goals and bring college in reach for more Americans.” However, many students do not feel as if the Department’s goals are being achieved. 

 

“I have noticed that it’s been a struggle for people. I personally depend on it so heavily. I knew that if I couldn’t get money from the college, and indirectly from the government, I could not attend the school,” said Ethan. Often children and families are partaking in this new step all alone. “My experience as a school counselor is not directly engaged with FAFSA. I simply direct students and parents, if needed, to the website,” said Ellen. 

 

The counselors at U-32 are incredibly compassionate during this frustrating time, “We were hopeful that it would have been out in December, and we were hopeful that it was going to be an easier process,” said Lisa. The counselors are doing their absolute best to understand these difficult circumstances and empathize. As Isa expressed, “It is confusing to get all these moving parts together.”

 

Many of the staff at U-32 have children themselves and have completed the FAFSA. “My children are grown up, so my own personal frustration as a parent around the FAFSA has subsided, but I understand the frustration,” said Ellen. The frustrations expressed by Ellen and other staff are not specific to U-32 and are prevalent across the nation. 

 

The counselors at U-32 recognize that “[The FAFSA delay] leaves lots of questions up in the air for families making decisions around schools,” said Ellen. Communication between families and counselors can be vital at this decision point. Additionally, the counselors can acknowledge that “The significance of FAFSA is immense, since college is incredibly expensive,” said Lisa. 

 

“Some schools have not expressed financial aid needs to next year’s incoming freshman,” said Ellen mere weeks before the traditional decision day of May 1st. Students across the nation have been issued extended deadlines due to the circumstances. “I’m not quite sure how families without some support can manage the situation. And outside of FAFSA, even for families who aren’t eligible for aid, college remains a financial burden.” 

 

Especially for families that are on the cusp of ‘qualifying’ for aid, there is an incredible reliance on alternative sources such as public scholarships. Unfortunately, “All funding organizations have to wait to hear from the FAFSA form results to make decisions on their offerings,” said Ellen. Higher education is an incredible investment, and this situation is frustrating for families from all different circumstances given differing funding options or lack thereof. 

 

The Investment in Higher Education

 

VSAC pamphlets available in Student Services (Josie Haley, Chronicle)

 

“It’s common to hear about schools around here that are 75 grand a year,” said George Cook, a financial aid teacher and parent of college-age children. “This can be a quarter million dollar investment, it’s big money.” Since college is incredibly expensive in the United States, many students rely on assistance from FAFSA. 

 

Some students feel as if the FAFSA process doesn’t directly serve its purpose, especially this year.“It’s not equitable, and that’s weird to say because the purpose of [FAFSA] is to make college equitable,” said Ethan. “You have a lot of people who are in my boat, who depend on it 100% but also a lot of people who would greatly benefit from it but their parents make just enough where they don’t qualify for it.” 

 

What else can be done to help fund the huge investment of college? “Each state has a group like VSAC (Vermont Student Assistance Corps) that is committed to helping the students in residency of their state get very low-interest loans,” Said George. VSAC’s mission is to, “create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them.” In the past year, they were able to give 12,214 need-based education grants to help Vermont students achieve their goals. 

 

The problem is that VSAC uses the FAFSA to help students access these scholarships and grants. According to VSAC, “Filing the FAFSA is the most important step to getting financial aid for college and career training, as well as the gateway to the Vermont Grant.”

 

Another way of preparing for the costs of college is saving, “My advice would be to open a 529 plan or a college savings plan,” said George. While college is incredibly expensive, “I think it is a good investment. There’s a lot of ties between people who graduated from four-year schools and the amount of money that they make years after,” said George. 

 

“This is like one of the biggest decisions that young adults make, you know there’s a lot weighing on it,” George said. The FAFSA delays this year have only made this decision more taxing for students, “I can imagine it’d be super stressful because some colleges extended their day that you have to commit. It can be challenging,” said Isa. 

 

While making this decision is incredibly stressful for many students, George acknowledges that, “school is really what you make of it.” 

 

Looking Towards the Future

 

Encouraging messages displayed on Counselor Lisa LaPlante’s office window (Elly Budliger, Chronicle)

 

“If I had known what it [the FAFSA results] would have looked like beforehand, then it would have been a lot better to both narrow down my college list and just feel more at ease,” said Ethan. Although the situation this year with FAFSA was difficult, in the future the glitches that occurred will be revised. There is recognition across the country of the problematic effects of such delays. 

 

Members of the community share the same frustrations as Ethan. It’s important to stay positive, “The FAFSA is hugely vital and hopefully they’ll fix these problems between now and when next year’s graduating class is applying,” said Lisa. Within the community, there is a collective agreement that the system should improve. 

 

Outside of the FAFSA, the pressure some students put on themselves to go to a good college can be overwhelming. However, George shares, “I went to private school my whole life so when I graduated from high school very few of the people in my school went to state schools. It was a little bit laughed at, but college is really what you make of it. I landed in a great place.”

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