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How ‘FAFSA Fail’ is impacting Utah students

Photo of a large "U" sign on the University of Utah campus.
Brian Albers
The University of Utah is one of the schools pushing back its enrollment deadlines for the 2024-2025 school year in light of the FAFSA problems.

The number of Utah high school students who have completed the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA, is down 31.7% compared to April 2023. That’s according to data tracked by the National College Attainment Network, which compared the number of submissions by April 5, 2024, to the number of submissions by the same time last year.

The decrease is part of a national trend. The U.S. Department of Education’s rollout of an updated application late last year, which promised to be faster and easier, was riddled with delays and other issues.

As May 1 approaches, the traditional deadline for admitted students to let a college know if they plan to attend, many Utah students are still trying to submit an application or are waiting to hear what financial aid they’ll get.

“It’s a mess and it’s super frustrating,” said Park City High School scholarship advisor Pepper Elliott.

A map from the U.S. Department of Education estimates how many graduating high school students in each Utah county have completed a FAFSA application successfully for the 2024-2025 school year, as of April 5, 2024.
U.S. Department of Education
A map from the U.S. Department of Education estimates how many graduating high school students in each Utah county have completed a FAFSA application successfully for the 2024-2025 school year, as of April 5, 2024.

The FAFSA form is usually released Oct. 1, but this year it didn’t come out until Dec. 30 for the 2024-2025 school year. Elliott estimates about 30% of the students she worked with in January were able to submit the form smoothly, but the rest had problems.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 154 Park City High School students applied for federal student aid by April 5, and 123 of those were submitted successfully. Those numbers were 220 and 216 respectively at the same time last year.

Elliott said some students are being told there are errors with their application. But they aren’t told what those problems are, and unlike in the past, they haven’t been able to go back in and correct them. She said she has repeatedly received emails saying a solution is coming and her students should be able to fix any errors the following week.

“I have an email waiting to go out as soon as I find out changes can be made, because I have a huge list of students that are just kind of in limbo waiting for that to happen,” Elliott told KUER on Friday.

Elliott said other students are having trouble putting in their Social Security number and are getting a message that says it's incorrect, even though it’s not.

“It's unfortunate because I fear that it's gonna hurt our most vulnerable student population the most, the ones that truly need these Pell Grants.”

Elliott said the updated FAFSA form was also supposed to be easier for students whose parents are undocumented and don’t have a Social Security number. But Elliott said for most of the students she has worked with, a problem with the form has prevented their parents from being able to fill it out.

According to data from the National College Attainment Network, Utah schools that have a high percentage of low-income students have seen a bigger dip in FAFSA completions — 47% fewer than last year. High-income schools have seen a 31.1% year-over-year drop. Additionally, Utah schools that have a high percentage of Black and Hispanic students have also seen a bigger drop in completions than schools that have a low percentage of Black and Hispanic students.

Elliott worries a small group of students will delay going to college because of these FAFSA challenges.

“Because they can't get the financial aid solidified and be able to to make their plans for the fall.”

At this point, Elliott is already worried about FAFSA for the 2025-2026 academic year since it's expected to open Oct. 1, 2025.

“It’s crazy to me that we’re in April and still dealing with this.”

But in the rare instances where the form works exactly as it's supposed to, Elliott agrees that it’s easier. She said the old form took 45 minutes to an hour for most people to fill out. With the updated version, Elliott said it takes 10 to 15 minutes.

That’s why Taylorsville High School counselor Danie Natter feels optimistic about the new application.

According to Department of Education data, 184 students from Taylorsville High had submitted the form by April 5, and 146 of those had no problems. That’s compared to 224 and 209 last year.

Natter said they have also seen some bugs with the new system, but she feels good about the success they’ve had so far. In anticipation of problems, she said the school held more FAFSA nights to help families. They also had students create a Federal Student Aid account during class so that they could come prepared.

Natter said because Taylorsville High has a lot of students who will be the first in their family to go to college, “we already have systems set up for that extra help” — including one-on-one support. Natter said that helped this year, and she hasn’t heard a lot of negative feedback. She said that could be because for many families, this was their first time filling out FAFSA.

Along with the glitches and delays for students, colleges also received applicants’ federal aid information late. In response to the FAFSA problems, many colleges have extended their enrollment deadlines. The University of Utah, for example, extended its deposit deadline from May 1 to June 3. The Utah News Dispatch reports some Utah colleges do not have an enrollment deadline, so students will still be able to sign up anytime before the fall semester starts.

On April 10, Utah Congressman Burgess Owens, Chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee, led a hearing titled “FAFSA Fail: Examining the Impacts on Students, Families, and Schools.” During the hearing, lawmakers strongly criticized the Department of Education’s rollout of FAFSA.

Owens argued institutions could see a 20% drop in enrollment during the 2024-2025 school year.

“Unfortunately, this may only be the tip of the iceberg. New errors are seemingly revealed every week, and there may even be a new one by the time this hearing is over.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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