Wednesday, March 27, 2024

FAFSA Foul Ups? Enough—Someone Needs to Go

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I can’t think of a single school counselor who wouldn’t be disciplined, even fired, if they prevented half of their seniors from applying to college. These students want to go to college, and they’ve navigated many hoops and hurdles to build academic and extracurricular records that not only show their ability to be successful in college, but give them the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be successful once they arrive on campus. Some take tests, some give up summers for additional learning experiences, some beg their parents to let them at least try college, and all understand what college can do for them, as well as what they can do for college. They’re about as ready as they can be, but they aren’t going to go, because their counselor created an application system that wouldn’t allow them to apply, or gave the impression they shouldn’t bother.

You likely see where this is going. Last February 1st, 6 million students had filed a FAFSA. This February 1st, that number was 3 million. The December 31 “rollout” of FAFSA was really part Beta-test, part blackout, with the site up for a while, then dark for hours, like electricity in a developing nation. Parents without Social Security numbers couldn’t apply at all for quite some time, and, depending on who you talk to, still can’t. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect algorithms in the formula used to calculate eligibility. Colleges were notified that, in all likelihood, they won’t get the FAFSA information they need until May 1 to put together final, real financial aid packages.

Counselors who work with low-income and first-generation students will tell you it takes a lot to convince most of them that college is worth a try, and that it doesn’t take much to derail their interest in the process if it gets too complicated. This isn’t just about writing drafts of college essays; it’s about the messages they receive from the adults involved in the admissions and application process. Many of these students are convinced they aren’t really welcome in the world of higher education. Give wrong advice on a Web page, or tell them to come back later with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, and you will simply not hear from them ever again.

Most colleges get this—it’s too bad the Department of Education doesn’t. Apologies and claims of underfunding aside, the Department had three years to bring the new FAFSA online. I know nothing about computer programming, but I know about project deadlines, and I know about kids. If a project is due Friday, you complete it by Tuesday. If the project involves kids, you bring in a half-dozen of them, give them pizza, show them the project, and say “Does this make sense at all?”, then fine tune it so it’s really done by Thursday.

The absence of planning on the part of the Department of Education regarding FAFSA upgrades is more than embarrassing. It has already cost students, families, and our nation’s economy dearly. Many of the students who survived COVID are eager to build brighter futures for themselves, only to find a bureaucratic plague preventing them from doing so.

High school counselors who build barriers to college access get fired, and rightfully so. I don’t want another “Isn’t FAFSA great” social media post from the Department of Education. I want to know who’s getting fired for this nightmare—and I want their apology to America’s students on the front page of The New York Times.

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