How the FAFSA delay is impacting low-income Minnesotans

Rows of empty seats in a college classroom setting.
Rows of empty seats in a college classroom setting.
Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

Students will have to wait even longer for financial aid offers from colleges and universities. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced another Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, delay and schools will not receive FAFSA data until the first half of March.

Meanwhile, Minnesota students are waiting to finalize their college decisions. MPR News host Nina Moini talked about the impacts of the delay with BG Tucker, the senior director of programs at College Possible Minnesota, an organization that aids students from economically disadvantaged communities.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: Our top story this afternoon, students will have to wait even longer for financial aid offers from colleges and universities. The US Department of Education announced another FAFSA delay. And schools won't receive FAFSA data until the first half of March.

Meanwhile, Minnesota students are waiting to finalize their college decisions in an already financially turbulent time. So joining us today is BG Tucker, the senior director of programs at College Possible Minnesota, an organization that aids students from economically disadvantaged communities. Welcome, BG. Thanks for being with us.

BG TUCKER: Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: So, BG, let's start off sort of on a technical note here. What's the normal timeline for the FAFSA? And how far has that been pushed back?

BG TUCKER: Sure. So normally, the FAFSA opens in October, right? It was not open in October this year. There was a soft launch. And it went live right at the end of December with the soft launch carrying into January.

And so as a student, especially students who apply early action or early decision, they can usually expect to get a response in January that also includes a financial aid award letter. And so that hasn't really come to fruition. Additionally, you know, we have really encouraged our students to wait in the hopes that the FAFSA would get its glitches out of its system. And with the announcement, as you all know, that is not happening either.

INTERVIEWER: And at that time, that's really all they want to know, right, is kind of what their future holds and what's going to be possible for them. Can you illustrate the difficulty of what it's like to fill out the FAFSA? And then how does College Possible work with students to help them get through that process?

BG TUCKER: Sure. So we ask students and families to come in with their taxes or come prepared to answer their tax information. And we're actually hosting in-person FAFSA nights this week. So on Tuesday and Friday, we'll be opening our office for students and families to come in, receive support.

We have translators for a bunch of different languages to help students and their guardians hopefully complete the process. I think the one thing is that, normally, we aspire to have those completed in one sitting. Because it is so hard to get parents to take time off of work and come in and give an hour to their students outside of their schedules. And the way that the FAFSA has gone so far, it's definitely not something that is able to be completed in one sitting.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. That's tough. And say a little more about the impact that this delay is having on students you worked with. You mentioned having to take time off of work.

BG TUCKER: Yeah. So I think it's pretty discouraging for students and families. We have seen, especially in some of the schools that we support and have had our trained professionals in staffing helping staff their FAFSA nights, watching a parent be unable to log back into a form they were only partially able to complete is really frustrating for them and then also knowing that they're going to have to go home and maybe try it on their own without that support next to them.

The other thing that we're super cognizant of is that we have students and families trying to complete the FAFSA on their own at home and running into roadblock after roadblock. So there's definitely a sense of heightened anxiety and frustration with this form that really is the determining factor on if that family is going to be able to afford college or not.

INTERVIEWER: Exactly. So it's already not a super easy process to fill out. And can you just talk about for those who might not be familiar with FAFSA kind of what this means specifically for kids who don't come from families with maybe that generational wealth?

BG TUCKER: Yep. So this year, students need both guardians to come on as contributors, whether they're a parent or a guardian, and help fill out the FAFSA form. They put in their financial information. They use their income tax returns.

And then at the end of that process, that online form, student gets an estimated understanding of the federal Pell grant that they'll be receiving and the loans that they're eligible for. And then that really is the base point for the creation of an award package at the different schools that they've been accepted to. And so without the FAFSA being complete, it's very hard for schools to create an offer that is inclusive of all of the federal funding, state funding, and institutional aid that they might be getting to make that school affordable.

INTERVIEWER: Sure. And do you know if FAFSA delays might impact the North Star Promise tuition program, which relies on that information? And then say what that North Star Promise tuition program is.

BG TUCKER: Yep. So North Star is incredibly exciting, right? It's a last-dollar scholarship that's coming in for students who are going to Minnesota public institutions. So basically, a student's aid would be calculated. And then if there was a remaining gap or out of pocket cost with the tuition, the North Star Promise grant would come in and cover that remaining amount for students and families of a certain income eligibility.

So that's something we are very excited about at College Possible. I would say it's too soon to tell if the distribution of that money is going to be impacted by the delay in the FAFSA. Because, assumingly, we are going to start processing FAFSAs and getting award letters. And since that is a last-dollar scholarship, it would be covering the remaining gap. And so I am very hopeful that that will still run without sort of any delay as we think about students planning to enroll in the fall.

INTERVIEWER: OK. And we know delays were already such a problem at the start of the pandemic. People probably have delay fatigue over a lot of things. But do you feel like enough is being done to sort of prevent that from happening again?

BG TUCKER: I will say we have a good amount of college partners, partners in the higher education space. And I have been very impressed that they are definitely having conversations around this and thinking about where there can be flexibility for students and families. The last thing you want to have happen is a student get accepted to six schools and then only have an award letter for one school. And that's where they end up going because they didn't know how much those other schools might cost, right?

And so I really I'm hopeful that, in Minnesota, the colleges here are talking. And they are thinking about how they can be accommodating to students and families if they aren't getting award letters until the later half of April.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Are you seeing any instances, as you're communicating with families, of students who really do have to sort of go a different route?

BG TUCKER: I don't think anyone is prepared to go a different route right now. Even with the delay, right, the hope is that students would be able to receive an award letter in April. I think the one of the things we're thinking about is how we're training our counselors to be able to quickly analyze award letters and get concrete information back to students as they start to come in at a delayed space.

But again, I think it's all going to come down to communication and allowing for flexibility and accommodations for students and families to make to have the time they need to make a decision. When you think about the pandemic, that was another space where that May 1st deadline was extended, so that students could have ample time to come and make a financially sound decision with their parents and guardians also on board. And so it's been done before. And I'm fully confident that higher ed will sort of come to terms with this and help us get to the end, past that May 1st deadline.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. And what is your sense for maybe more specific universities and how they would be responding? How do you pitch to them that would be helpful to them as well?

BG TUCKER: I think they're pretty good at listening, especially with how public this has been. You look at the different players in sort of this space. And the amount of information that's coming out while the maybe department of ed maybe has not been incredibly transparent, I will say that organizations like NCAN, the National College Attainment Network, have done a great job of reporting on this and keeping everyone abreast of where we are in the process.

And so for example, we're going to a community partner meeting at the University of Minnesota this week. And that will be a space where people who serve students similar to College Possible students in the Twin Cities will be able to come and ask questions about, what is the plan for navigating this? So I think the listening is there. And I think people are eager to make sure that students are making informed decisions.

INTERVIEWER: And sort of lastly, I know College Possible doesn't just deal with FAFSA. What's your biggest advice to students who are just thinking about that higher education journey right now?

BG TUCKER: I think the biggest thing is that everyone is going through this struggle, right, with the financial aid piece. And at College Possible, we really, really try and stress the importance of making sound financial aid decisions and making decisions with all the information that you can have and putting all that information in front of our students and their parents or guardians. And so while this process might be frustrating, it's frustrating for everyone right now. And that there is a ton of support available to them to get them to the finish line of this application process.

INTERVIEWER: All right, BG Tucker, senior director of programs at College Possible Minnesota. BG, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon. We really appreciate your time.

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