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Helping Students Navigate FAFSA Challenges 

Due to changes in this year’s FAFSA process, college students nationwide face unprecedented obstacles in securing financial aid. The fallout is particularly difficult for families of mixed citizenship status. We spoke with Delta Lee (they/them), Rainier Scholars’ Director of College Counseling, to better understand FAFSA, its recent changes, and how we are supporting scholars and their families as they navigate the issues. 

FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is required by all colleges to evaluate both new and continuing students for financial aid, including the Federal Pell Grant, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and state grants. 

In 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act to streamline the application form itself and expand access to Pell Grants. Additional changes in the act included modifying family size definitions and revising the methodology used to determine aid, including removing the number of family members in college from the equation. The latter means families with multiple students enrolled will no longer receive additional consideration. 

“As far as streamlining the application, the form does have a lot fewer questions,” Delta explains. “If you are one of the few lucky students with no issues, it only takes 15-20 minutes to complete. However, if you have any complications in your information, there are significant roadblocks.” 

Scholars whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers were unable to access the FAFSA at all. Students with government-verified citizenship documents, such as Green Cards, also faced challenges. On top of these barriers, it took hours on hold with the Federal Student Aid Information Center to connect with support staff. Despite their efforts, students and families were often left with unanswered questions, requiring them to solve issues on their own. 

In addition to problems completing the actual application, the FAFSA form, which is usually available on October 1, didn’t open until early January and crashed frequently. This has caused massive delays, pushing applicants against many colleges’ financial aid deadlines. Not only that, but the government has also been slow in processing applications received and sending the data to schools. “In prior years, students typically had the majority of their financial packages around mid-March, allowing them to feel more confident moving forward with decisions. This year, colleges have barely begun to receive federal financial information, which wildy impacts students who are supposed to select their school by May,” Delta explains. While a small percentage of schools have pushed back their admission deadlines by 15-30 days, that still puts tremendous stress on students who should be celebrating their college admissions now. 

Not surprisingly, Delta has been spending the majority of their time supporting scholars and their families during this challenging situation. “Because a lot of the information required by FAFSA is very sensitive, we’ve been working with families on a one-on-one basis to provide assistance and guidance,” said Delta. ” We had a special meeting for parents in February, and we’ve walked some folks through a printed version of the application. Most of all, we’ve been trying to alleviate fear and encourage students to keep going because, at this point, many students across the country are dropping out of the FAFSA process entirely.” 

In the meantime, Delta recommends that students and families visit FAFSA.gov to find updates on system fixes and known issues. They should also visit the financial aid websites of the schools they’re considering and contact those financial aid offices directly when necessary. 

“Regardless of the challenges this year, I have been incredibly impressed with our scholars’ perseverance. Talk about being EPIC!” Delta remarked. “Our students are keeping up their grades, staying involved in activities, and coming to workshops despite the uncertainty around their college futures. That’s quite astounding, and I’m really impressed with them.”