Inside her cramped office at the Henderson Inclusion School in Boston, Caitlin Serna scrambles to help a her students get into college, and even more importantly, find ways to pay for it.
But this year the federal government’s new and "improved" Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, isn't helping. The crucial form rolled out three months late and riddled with confusing mistakes.
Students need to submit the form to qualify for financial aid, and some colleges require it as early as mid-January.
“Not only is it an unreasonable ask for students to complete the FAFSA within two weeks of its release, but it is also impossible for students experiencing difficulties with the FAFSA to make such a rigid deadline,” Serna said, calling the process unfair.
Millions of students rely on FAFSA to receive low-cost federal loans, Pell grants and work-study funds and many are wrestling with problems, causing financial aid advocates to worry it could result in lower student enrollment.
But it's also crunch-time for the school counselors nationwide who help students through the process — educators already overburdened with enormous caseloads of students. The average student-to-school-counselor ratio was 408-to-1 for 2021-22 school year, according to the American School Counselor Association. And public high school counselors already spend just 22% of their time on college advising, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling.
FAFSA has left many backlogged.
“The biggest challenge is that it’s new for all counselors and those folks that support students and families,” said Bob Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. “It's a huge mess. It would have been nice if they waited a year and got it right.”
Congress had required the Education Department to simplify the FAFSA this year. Following the botched rollout, Republican senators are now accusing the Biden administration of prioritizing debt relief over the new aid application and asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate.
On Monday afternoon, the Education Department announced a new strategy to provide additional staffing support and funding to help schools and students complete the new FAFSA form — and to help colleges prepare to process student records as quickly as possible.
In a call with reporters, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the new form, although late, is “transformational.”
“We are determined to get this right,” he said. “We must, and we will. Our hope is that the steps we’re announcing today are going to go a long way toward helping colleges and universities make the most of the [new] FAFSA.”
A department official said the strategy would include “deploying teams of federal experts” to high-need colleges and $50 million in funding to help them recruit about 50 financial aid counselors.
There are nearly 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S.
Cardona said since the new FAFSA became available on Dec. 30, nearly 3.5 million forms have been successfully submitted.
“We’re hearing from people about how quick it is — how easy it is to complete,” he said.
But the changes won't help high school counselors on the front lines.
And Bardwell said the launch's hiccups could disproportionately affect low-income students applying to college. In wealthier districts, students often have financially savvy parents or enough money to hire someone to help advise them, so they’re not struggling to get facetime with a school counselor.
“There are definitely going to be the haves and have-nots” as a result, Bardwell said.
The bureaucratic bungles also mean students won’t know what they’re qualified to receive from the federal government until March, and many colleges won’t be able to offer full financial aid packages until they’ve made their own calculations in April.
“If students aren’t receiving financial aid offers, they don’t know how much college will cost,” said Brendan Williams, vice president at the nonprofit uAspire, which works with school counselors in low-income schools.
“There are definitely going to be the haves and have-nots.”Bob Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association
Williams wants states to make completing the form a graduation requirement, part of uAspire’s mission to encourage high schoolers to go to college. But, for this year, the troubled FAFSA rollout is the primary concern.
The problems could force families to make decisions about their education that they didn’t really want to make, he said, and could result in fewer students going to college.
At Fenway High School in Roxbury, counselors said they’re also working to make sure the FAFSA fiasco doesn’t decrease the number of students heading to college. The school serves predominantly Latino students, and seven in 10 students from Fenway attend college.
Fenway counselor Aubrey Franzoi said the FAFSA wait has limited how much advice she can give her students.
“I just had a student get into university and she was asking me, ‘Well, when will I know what I have to pay?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know,’” Franzoi said. “Since they don’t know, we’ve seen fewer students applying for scholarships this year because there is a big question mark around it.”
Despite local efforts to help more students apply and get financial aid, the number of Latino students in Massachusetts who attend college right out of high school has fallen from 51% in 2017 to 36% in 2022.
A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education found Latino adults with a high school diploma or less education appeared more likely than their white counterparts to consider attending college, but felt unclear about how to do it.
“One of the biggest problems that we’re trying to solve is how we can get our students who are primarily Black and Latino access to higher education,” said Geoffrey Walker, Fenway High’s head of school.
Back at the Henderson school in Dorchester, Serna’s office is decorated with encouraging and colorful mini college pennants. Her little office is a refuge for students looking for guidance, but she is the only college and career counselor for about 70 seniors.
Most plan to go to college, she said, so that's a lot of FAFSA paperwork — compared to a typical year where she’d have months in the fall to get the forms in.
“I fear that there will be some students who fall through the cracks,” Serna said, knowing that figuring out the cost of college will be critical for her students. “We would have already done the FAFSA, and it would relieve me of that stress to get all of their stuff done.”
One of Serna’s students, Hari Ramlochan, said he needs to know what college will cost and what aid he will receive before he accepts a college offer.
“You want to go to the school that offers like good money, but also you're getting a good education,” Ramlochan said. “Essentially what I'm looking for is a school that offers good financial aid.”
Ramlochan, who is applying to eight colleges including Boston University and Fitchburg State, said he appreciated Serna’s help. Without it, and even though the form has been simplified, he doesn’t think he would’ve been able to complete it on his own.
With the delayed FAFSA and financial aid offers, though, he’ll have less time to decide where to go to college — and how to pay for it.