For low-income students, FAFSA can be a lifeline. When it didn't work, they were hardest hit.


Students who needed aid the most were among the hardest hit after the Education Department bungled the rollout of the new federal financial aid form, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a new USA TODAY analysis shows.  

Delays and technical problems with the form have left many economically disadvantaged students scrambling for financial aid, jeopardizing their college aspirations. 

The analysis, which combined FAFSA completion data with school- and district-level demographics information, revealed a sharper decline in processed applications — in which a student's information was successfully reviewed and sent to colleges for financial aid consideration — among schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students compared to their counterparts in high-income schools. 

Congressional action in December 2020 aimed to streamline the FAFSA process by introducing changes like reducing the number of questions and facilitating the electronic transfer of income information from IRS records.  

But those efforts backfired.  

As soon as the form became available to students on Dec. 30, 2023, reports of outages and delays emerged. Compounding the glitches, the Education Department had already postponed the release of the application from its typical Oct. 1 date, cutting the time students had to submit their applications by three months compared to previous years.  

In March, when the FAFSA issues were worse, schools serving the lowest-income students experienced a larger decrease in the number of applications completed. Specifically, there was a 48% drop in processed applications for these schools. Meanwhile, schools with a high-income student body saw only a 34% drop. Nationwide, the overall decrease was 40%. 

The 14-point difference between the lowest- and highest-income schools underscores a significant disparity in how many students, and from which backgrounds, ultimately get connected with federal financial aid, experts said.  

While economically disadvantaged students are the ones most in need of financial aid, they have historically had the lowest FAFSA completion rates, said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit organization that promotes college access and success. 

The latest data as of May 24 showed that the disparity has narrowed as the Education Department addressed some of the problems with the form and accelerated application processing in April and May.  

The Education Department says more than 10 million FAFSA forms have been submitted to date, and the agency is processing them in one to three days. James Kvaal, the education undersecretary, told USA TODAY last month that any student who still hasn't submitted the form should complete it as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, the overall rates are still worse than last year, and the disparate impact on low-income students in the initial months of the rollout remains a concern for families, educators, and policymakers, especially considering that the path to college education heavily depends on financial aid packages. 

The fact that several institutions were unable to make these determinations in March and April would have a “disproportionate impact” on the enrollment numbers of low-income students, said Emmanual Guillory, senior government relations director at the American Council on Education. 

“They need to know, ‘What kind of aid can you offer me because I don’t have the luxury of depending upon family wealth,’” Guillory said, voicing the concerns of low-income students seeking financial aid.  

Another concern is whether the FAFSA mishap will further widen the equity gap — essentially reversing progress made in recent years, advocates and experts say.  

Last month, the American Council on Education and 35 other higher education groups sent a letter to Congress asking them “to undertake a long-term assessment of the FAFSA delays' impact on students—particularly low-income students—and institutions.” 

“Everybody's far behind, but the schools and districts that are farthest behind are lower income,” said Ellie Bruecker, director of research at the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that advocates for affordable college education. “They also tend to be serving higher proportions of students of color.” 

When USA TODAY compared the lowest-income schools with the highest-income ones, the difference in average completion rates was 13 points this year. Last year, it was 11 points. 

“It is perfectly logical to me that they would be further behind because they're working with fewer resources to try to get caught up,” Bruecker said, referring to low-income schools.  

“It's really unfortunate but not unexpected that we would see that pattern because we have not corrected for those resource gaps.” 

‘Do I even get to go to college?’ 

Jesse Johnson will be the first in his family to go to college. He plans to study radiology at Northern Kentucky University this fall. But for months, the FAFSA rollout debacle threatened that prospect.  

Jesse Johnson, a recent graduate of Augusta Independent School in Kentucky, experienced monthslong delays when applying for federal financial aid this year.

The 18-year-old northeastern Kentucky student was afraid that his financial aid application wouldn’t be processed in time to cover his college costs.

He started to doubt his future: “Do I even get to go to college?” Johnson said. That nagging question swung back and forth in his head for months. 

"I was on pins and needles the whole time because I didn't think I'd be able to go," he told USA TODAY. 

Johnson first tried submitting his FAFSA in early January, but it took months for the Federal Student Aid office to process his mother’s Social Security number, a common issue reported by applicants. He then had to redo the entire application toward the end of March after submitting it for the wrong school year.  

By that time, Johnson was on the edge of forgoing his college plans. “April came around, and I'm like, ‘Okay, like I need to make a decision on where I'm going. And FAFSA still ain't done,’” he said. 

His aid offer didn’t arrive until mid-May, and when it came, he said it was “a big relief.” 

Johnson is a recent graduate of Augusta Independent School, where his mother works in the cafeteria. His father works at a local mill.  

“It has been a long climb out of the deep hole for FAFSA submissions and completions this cycle,” DeBaun said. 

At the end of March, the number of completed applications was down about 40% from a year ago, FAFSA completion data showed. The figures have improved since then, but as of May 24, the number of applications completed was still down by more than 14% from the same period last year. 

According to federal data, Augusta Independent in Bracken County, Kentucky, serves students from low-income families with over two-thirds of its student body considered economically disadvantaged. As of last week, the Education Department processed 14 applications submitted out of the school’s 19 seniors.

In rural Falmouth, Kentucky, a few dozen miles from Augusta Independent, Pendleton County High School had only half of the applications processed compared to last year.  

There are other standouts, too. For example, at Provine High School in Jackson, Mississippi, a majority-Black school, completed applications were down 41%, while across the border in Nashville, Tennessee, Hillwood High has 70% fewer completions.  

Turtle Mountain Community High School in Belcourt, North Dakota, had 68% fewer completions. The school, which serves Indigenous students, has the biggest drop in the state and is among the schools hurt the most nationwide. A majority of the students in these schools are from low-income families. 

Once the FAFSA hiccups were fixed, "higher-income districts really got a move on" completing applications, while the climb was steeper for lower-income districts, Bruecker said. 

What states are the most behind in FAFSA submissions? 

From 2% in Indiana to 22% in Alabama, the drops in FAFSA completions vary across states, but the worst-hit states are the most rural and impoverished, USA TODAY’s analysis found. So far, no state has matched last year's numbers, with Alabama and Mississippi reporting the steepest declines. 

The other laggards are West Virginia, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona, Maine, and Kentucky. 

“You traditionally have low-income, very low-income folk, which mainly reside in poor rural areas, since we're a high rural state, and they're going to be by far more impacted in more ways than one,” said Aaron Thompson, president of Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. 

“Many of our low-income students traditionally wait for much later to apply for FAFSA,” Thompson added. 

“It was much more of a sprint this year than a marathon,” said Dave Sobush, director of research and policy at the Florida College Access Network, a statewide organization that promotes postsecondary education. The organization estimates that $363 million in need-based financial aid has been left on the table this year for eligible students in the state. 

After this year’s rollout glitches, the organization pivoted its efforts toward helping students apply for summer school aid, Sobush said. 

Experts outlined several reasons for the disparities in completion rates among states, pointing primarily to the lack of resources at low-income schools and limited college access in remote areas. 

Kim Welch, executive director at GEAR UP Kentucky, explained that the FAFSA process, particularly the new process, demands hands-on engagement with students and their families. 

GEAR UP, a federally funded program designed to support high-poverty students with college aspirations, helped Jesse Johnson, the Augusta Independent student in Kentucky, complete his FAFSA and navigate the glitches. 

“When you don't have staffing resources, or the capacity of your existing staff to support that, it impacts the rate at which our students and families with lower-income backgrounds can navigate the process,” Welch said, adding the process can be especially overwhelming for first-generation college students. 

The FAFSA difficulties come amid a nationwide decline in undergraduate enrollment among young Americans over the last decade, which still hasn't rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.   

With the rising costs of higher education, ballooning student debt, and concerns about return on investment, only a quarter of U.S. adults say it’s extremely or very important to have a four-year college degree to land a well-paying job in today’s economy, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest report

As Job Advisor previously reported, the FAFSA troubles caused many students to fall through the cracks or opt against college altogether. 

“It's likely we may see a decrease in enrollment. And it's likely that low-income students may be impacted more than high-income students,” said Guillory, the senior government relations director at the American Council on Education. 

Sobush at the Florida College Access Network said that the state’s tight labor market, in which more graduates are choosing work over college, is also lowering college-going rates.  

A recent report by the Helios Education Foundation shows that Floridian graduates entering the workforce directly out of high school rose by 10 points between 2010 and 2019. In the same period, overall postsecondary enrollments declined from 64% to 56%.  

“Our goal is not just to have low-income students complete the FAFSA. We want them to complete the FAFSA and get aid to go to college,” Bruecker said.  

“We've made progress there, but it has not yet translated to closing the equity gaps in enrollment.” 

Biden administration launches review of Federal Student Aid office  

The Federal Student Aid office has faced significant pressure to resolve FAFSA issues, including letters from senators and representatives on education committees. Last month, three dozen higher education associations called the delays "debilitating" in one such letter. 

In February, over a dozen U.S. senators, including Charles Grassley and Thom Tillis, sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressing concerns about the FAFSA rollout's impact on farm and small business families. They criticized the department for botching the launch and for delaying the release past Oct. 1. 

Several more letters were sent to Cardona by the members of Congress in May urging the secretary to resolve FAFSA issues for the next school year. The letter from U.S. representatives from Oregon said: “We continue to hear of significant problems with the application process that threaten to permanently affect the college ambitions of young people.” 

Amid the scrutiny, the top Education Department official overseeing FAFSA, Richard Cordray, announced that he will step down by the end of this month.  

All this pressure led the Biden administration to commission an independent review of the Federal Student Aid office, announced last week. 

Meanwhile, several colleges have extended their deadlines for students to commit to enroll.  

Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education's Thompson said the FAFSA delays come amid widespread skepticism about college's value: “The delays are not just going to affect our low-income families but also many of our working-class families.” 

“There is this whole lot of philosophy out there that college is not worth it. So, I would argue that it's bigger than just whether our low-income families are getting any money,” Thompson said. 

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