Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Financial aid upheaval puts college students at risk • Source New Mexico

Maureen Ford has already been accepted to nine colleges and universities as she waits to graduate from Navajo Preparatory School on May 20. She wants to be the first generation in her family to graduate from college.

But first she needs to get her federal financial aid fixed as the clock ticks toward a May 1 deadline. Like many students across the country, Ford will rely heavily on financial aid to meet her goals.

Although she filed her application in January, the system still won’t allow her to complete the process.

“It’s very frustrating because I really want to know and submit my application because a lot of my colleges are asking for it,” Ford told ICT. “May 1 is coming up, and I need to make my decision on where I want to go to college. I really need to find out how much aid I am getting because I need financial aid for every college.”

Ford is among millions of students whose financial aid remains up in the air after changes to the national Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, have upended the application process.

Online system glitches, calculation errors and incorrect tax information have all contributed to the data exchange madness between the U.S. Department of Education, on-the-ground school specialists and students.

The changes could hit particularly hard for students at tribal colleges and universities and historically Black colleges and universities, where as many as 70-90 percent of students rely on financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Maureen Ford, who is set to graduate from Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico, on May 20, 2024, is among millions of students whose financial aid for college remains up in the air after changes to the national Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. (Photo courtesy of Maureen Ford)

Typically, 17 million students submit the form each year, but applications were down 40 percent nationwide as of March 29, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Delays have pushed back the timelines on the FAFSA process, which typically opens in October and responds to students by March. Most college award letters will start to arrive in May.

“The amount of stress that it’s causing students is pretty monumental,” said Sam Bader, a Kānaka Maoli teacher at Navajo Prep in Farmington, New Mexico, who helps students navigate the college application process.

The uncertainty is creating headaches not only for Native students and their parents, but also school counselors, college admissions administrators and executives.

Twyla Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa and Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College president, voiced concerns on social media about how the delays and glitches are affecting Native students.

“Requiring changes in FAFSA without funding resources to do so is a great way for politicians to cause problems for our most vulnerable students,” Baker wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“Millions of college students [are] in limbo.”

What is FAFSA?

The application system for financial aid was originally set up under the 1965 Higher Education Act under President Lyndon B. Johnson to establish the U.S. government as the primary provider of financial aid for college students.

The application was initially called the Financial Aid Form, or FAF, as an optional form for colleges and universities. In 1992, when the Higher Education Act was reauthorized by Congress, the form was standardized to FAFSA for all prospective students.

Federal financial aid can include Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, or SEOGs, which do not need to be repaid. Students can also receive federal direct student loans, which require repayment, and can participate in federal work-study programs.

With the details provided in FAFSA, the government uses a formula to calculate a student’s aid index – how much the government estimates the family can provide for college tuition and expenses.

A key component is that families are not required to be low-income to qualify for assistance. Students whose parents earn as much as $200,000 a year can be eligible for aid.

Many don’t ever apply, however. According to the College Board, millions of dollars in federal aid are left on the table because students failed to file a FAFSA. The College Board is a nonprofit organization that provides information to help students succeed in college.

This year, changes ostensibly to make the system easier have instead caused delays, with the government pushing back the deadlines from March 1 to May 1 for applying.

FAFSA Help Available

Stressed out waiting for your college financial aid awards letter after filing your FAFSA?

Counselors are in the same boat, waiting on pins and needles to hear back from the U.S. Department of Education. Their advice: breathe, be patient and stay in touch with your selected colleges for the fall semester.

If you haven’t yet filled out the FAFSA form, you have until May 1 to complete the process.

Here are some tips for navigating the system:

*If you are starting the application from scratch, follow these 8 tips.
*Keep checking back on your submitted application and make any corrections required.
*Have patience.
*Stay in touch with your counselor, college advisor and college financial aid office.
*In your state, research other financial aid avenues: state, public and private scholarships.
*Apply for scholarships at your selected college.
*Don’t give up. Persevere.

The revamped system does include some advantages, however. The number of questions on the form has been reduced from 103 to about 30, and applicants can fill out their income and college choices in a way that is considered more streamlined.

A new formula for determining financial aid will also make more students eligible for assistance, by making more low-income and medium-income families qualify. It also opens up eligibility requirements for homeless youth, foster care youth and incarcerated individuals, and allows more than one member in a family to attend college on aid.

“One of the big things, of course, is the new formula,” said Ruben Reyes, a public outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Educational Assistance Foundation who holds FAFSA workshops for counselors, parents and students.

“So that’s a positive thing,” Reyes said. “More students are going to be able to get more federal aid.”

Most college officials tout the new rollout, despite the roadblocks.

“It is a lot easier for a student and family members to complete the FAFSA than it ever was before,” said Michaela Willis, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Dakota State University.

“It doesn’t take very long,” Willis said. “You don’t have to give up three hours of your time. Fifteen minutes to a half-hour, and you could be finished with that FAFSA. So go out there, check it out, and get it done. It’s pretty quick and easy.”

Meanwhile, counselors are encouraging students in limbo to apply for state and private scholarships, the applications for which are usually readily available in high school and college financial aid offices.

New Mexico, for example, offers free in-state tuition to state residents to attend public colleges now, plus offering the New Mexico Opportunity grant and the lottery scholarship.

Some states also offer free tuition to Native students, but financial aid experts said the students are still eligible to apply for other grants and scholarships to help offset costs.

Counselors, also in wait mode, expect their jobs to extend into the summer months and maybe even into the fall.

“Unfortunately, financial aid staff will be under a massive workload in processing records for aid due to all the system glitches, calculations, and tax errors,” Reyes said. “Many corrections will need to be addressed, further delaying the process of awarding student aid for the fall.”

Impact on TCUs

The upheaval is creating problems for tribal colleges and universities as well.

In New Mexico alone, about 28 percent fewer graduating high school students – including Indigenous students – have yet to file their FAFSA.

Reyes said the year has been hectic.

“We are all working as hard as we can to try to ease the pain to all the students and families being Native American or any New Mexico student residents here in New Mexico,” Reyes said. “The new FAFSA rollout has been quite a challenge.”

At South Dakota State University, Willis said about 23 percent of self-identified American Indian and Alaska Native students did not complete the FAFSA for the 2023 or 2024 academic years.

“That does mean that 75 to 80 percent are relying on federal financial aid in part for their schooling,” Willis said. “We also know that within a specific group of students are Wokini Scholars, who must be tribally enrolled to be eligible for that scholarship. About 18 percent did not complete the FAFSA.”

At the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, counselor Scott Whitaker said that the institute staff cannot view even the applications submitted in January, further delaying the process.

“We can’t bring them in like we normally do and load them into our computer systems and start awarding financial aid based on that,” Whitaker said.

About 75 percent of IAIA students are Native American – about the same percentage as those who attend one of the 37 tribal colleges in the nation.

“I imagine it’s similar because we’re all drawing from a very similar population,” said Whitaker, a 35-year veteran in college financial aid.

Looking ahead

Meanwhile, as her high school graduation approaches, Ford faithfully returns to the online application in hopes of making the corrections the system has flagged.

It hasn’t been as simple as promised.

“I filed it back in January, but I’m currently waiting to make corrections,” she said. “There’s a button and it’s not letting me press it. There’s a notification saying that I’ll have to wait a couple more weeks in order to make corrections.”

Julia Begay, who is set to graduate from Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico, on May 20, 2024, waited four months to hear back on her college financial aid after changes to the national Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, upended the process. (Photo via Zoom)

Aiming to study human health or biological sciences, Ford dreams of attending Emory University in Georgia or Reed College in Oregon. She’s also interested in the University of Colorado.

“When I got most of my acceptances, it kind of boosted my confidence and made me want to finish high school,” Ford said. “I’m just really excited for what the future holds for me.”

Despite the hold-ups, Ford remains determined.

“I can’t really do anything,” she said. “I just have to wait and see. I check every day, every hour of the day.”

Julia Begay, another Navajo Prep senior, was accepted to 11 of the 14 colleges she applied to, but has received only two financial aid award letters. Waiting four months to hear back from FAFSA was a bit excruciating, but she has since committed to attend Seattle University.

“It was really torture,” said Begay, also a first-generation student to attend college. “My Mom, you know, has never experienced this before. So it was a first for both of us, and we were both just getting really impatient because I had to make these college decisions. But I couldn’t make it without my financial needs. It was really, really frustrating.”

After going through the process, Begay has sage advice for peers.

“Have patience and don’t worry about it too much,” Begay said. “Keep yourself busy and fill out what you need to fill out and do what you need to do.”

Reyes also tells students and parents not to lose faith.

“You’re still going to get that state aid, but just know that that federal aid will come in time,” said Reyes. “The schools may be a little bit behind on getting everything processed for you, but they will get it done eventually.”

He continued, “Just go through the process, make sure you get your admissions application done. Make sure you attend orientation in the fall. That’s very important at your chosen college. Go through all the steps and just move forward. Even if your financial aid award offer is not ready yet, just pretend that it is okay.”

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