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FAFSA issues could keep more Arizona students out of college

When the federal government rolled out its new and improved version of the online college financial aid form, commonly known as FAFSA, it was supposed to make things easier for students.

Instead, what has followed has been described as a chaotic rollout full of glitches that are making it hard for students to find out how much federal student aid they qualify for as the clock ticks closer to graduation.

And, central to the problems that have yet to be solved by the Department of Education is for students with immigration parents who don’t have a Social Security number. They can’t seem to be able to register with the site.

Jaimie Gosling has spent a lot of her time lately trying to make sure students don’t give up on the process and decide not to go to college at all. She’s a post-secondary articulation specialist with the Phoenix Union High School District. She also works with school counselors districtwide to help students with what comes next.

Full interview

JAIMIE GOSLING: Well, Federal Student Aid (FSA) has a list of kind of ongoing issues that are unresolved, and so we continue to look at that. There's numerous issues that are just problematic and unresolved. But the biggest concern that we are seeing is that students who have a parent without a Social Security number, they're kind of stuck, they're either not able to create an FSA ID. Or if they are able to create an FSA ID, they just aren't able to complete the form. So our students are able to complete their side if they've got a Social Security number. But our parents of those students, they're just kind of in a holding pattern.

So it sounds like that's one major issue with students with immigrant parents, but there are lots of other sort of weird glitches happening. Kids not being able to get through, the deadlines have been pushed back, right? Like what's the broad picture look like as well?

GOSLING: Yeah. So for a while, we were really stressed as school counselors trying to meet deadlines of March 1 for our students, particularly around the Obama scholarship at ASU. But the three in-state universities have all pushed their deadline back to May 1, their FAFSA priority deadline. So that's relieved a little bit of stress for our students and families and school counselors.

But still, there hasn't been a whole lot of progress made, you know, since the FAFSA has opened. This issue regarding parents without Social Security numbers is an ongoing issue since Jan. 4. I was on in a webinar meeting this morning with Arizona Board of Regents and just kind of the the experts in FAFSA and there just is no timeline when this will be resolved. So we're again just kind of waiting.

So what does this mean necessarily for students who are trying to prepare for college, community college, whatever it may be. Like, are they going to have to decide where they're going late or if they can afford to go to a certain college a little later on? Or are you worried that kids are just going to give up and they might not go at all?

GOSLING: Yes, so I actually met with some students the other day just to kind of gauge, you know, what, what have their experience has been. And they said it's really stressful because they aren't being told by the universities what their financial aid package will be. They might not get that until April. And so they're just kind of waiting to see what that looks like and that, you know. And speaking to one student, that financial aid package really determines where they can go to school and if they can go to school, because they said, you know, my parents just can't afford to pay.

So instead of students having, you know, some time to kind of review those financial aid packages and make an informed decision, it seems a little bit rushed this year that they're going to have to make a really big decision pretty quickly.

Yeah. One of the national stories around this is that we've seen because of all the problems people are having trying to fill out this form online that the, the completion rates for FAFSA, for students all over the country have just dropped massively. You've got tons of kids just kind of not being able to, or giving up or waiting or whatever it may be for this financial aid. What's it look like in your district, first of all?

GOSLING: Well, I do from the meeting that we had this morning, I do have data for the state of Arizona. And there's about 14% of students who have completed the FAFSA so far.

What is it usually?

GOSLING: That I don't know at this point, but that is incredibly low.


GOSLING: Nationally at the National College Attainment Network. They're saying nationally, only 16% of students have completed the FAFSA, and that was through Jan. 26.

Man. So you want to see those rates go way up. Is it too late or do you think many students will complete it when they can get through or some of these glitches maybe are fixed?

GOSLING: Well, I'm hopeful that students will get through it and complete it once the glitches are fixed. I just know us as adults, we need to continue to push through and encourage our students to not give up because they've definitely, they definitely have encountered many hurdles so far.

So, yeah, tell us more about your advice to students and families at this point. Like what can you do to help?

GOSLING: Right. So obviously staying connected to your school counselor on your campus. There are various resources across the state. There is a website ... that is open to help students complete. I know we've got a great partnership with College Depot in Phoenix. So we encourage families and students to seek out their services if they need extra support or help. We have a great partnership with Be A Leader as well, who is helping our students on campuses to get through the FAFSA. So we are very fortunate in Phoenix Union to have great partnerships. However, we're just all kind of in this waiting game of when will people, you know, these things get fixed so that people can proceed completing the form?

OK. So going forward as you're sort of trying to make sure that people finish these forms and don't give up and, and that, you know, it sounds like it's a little bit of chaotic at this point. What are your biggest concerns going forward? Like, what do you think this could mean for this generation or this year of, of high school graduates?

GOSLING: Well, I am concerned that because, you know, there have been some roadblocks and many roadblocks for some students, that they are just going to give up. That, you know, it's too hard. I'll just, I'll do it next year. So really making sure that, you know, we encourage students and, and remind them of how important this is, and hopefully we'll have answers to just continue to be their cheerleaders that we can get through this. But I am afraid, I, like I said, many students depend on financial aid to go to college. We are at 86% free and reduced lunch district. And so it could mean, you know, if they think they're not getting financial aid or if they were not to get financial aid, that might be the factor in going to college.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.