Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

On (delayed) college decision day, FAFSA problems are still burdening prospective college students

College campus buildings
May 15 is decision day for many colleges across Minnesota. It’s two weeks later than the normal May 1 deadline for students to commit to attending the school in the fall.
Giovanna Dell'Orto | AP 2022

May 15 is decision day for many colleges across Minnesota. It’s two weeks later than the normal May 1 deadline for students to commit to attending the school in the fall.

That’s because of an alarming delay to FAFSA earlier this year, which was plagued with glitches and challenges. Around 225,000 Minnesotans usually fill out the FAFSA form overseen by the U.S. Department of Education that is used to determine which government loans and grants students can receive.

But Minnesota students have submitted the form at unusually low rates this year.

BG Tucker is the senior director of programs at College Possible, an organization that helps low-income families with the college process. She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer with an update on this important day for many Minnesotans’ higher education.

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

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Today is decision day for many colleges across Minnesota. It's two weeks later than normal, that normal May 1 deadline for students to commit to attending the school in the fall. That's because of an alarming delay around FAFSA earlier this year after the website was plagued with glitches and challenges. The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is how prospective and current students qualify for federal and state grants as well as many school scholarships and other types of financial aid. Around 225,000 Minnesotans usually fill out the FAFSA form overseen by the US Department of Education, but as of May the 3rd, only 33% of Minnesota high-school seniors had completed applications.

BG Tucker is the senior director of programs at College Possible. That's an organization that helps low-income families with the college process. She's on the line with an update on this important day for many Minnesotans. BG, thanks for taking time. Thank you so much.

BG TUCKER: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: So you've been working with students who are relying on federal supports to get to college. How's it been going for them? It sounds like it's been a bit of a mess.

BG TUCKER: Yeah, it's been a really rough year. Actually, I'll preface that by saying we had a really successful application cycle. We actually saw an uptick in our applications, the first we've seen since the pandemic. So I would say the fall semester was actually quite bright for our students, especially in our senior class.

However, with the delays in the FAFSA launch and when it went live eventually in January, it's just been sort of roadblock after roadblock after roadblock for our students and families. And so the spring has definitely been a highly stressful period for the students we serve.

CATHY WURZER: Do you know of any students forced to make a decision by today without having their financial-aid information in hand?

BG TUCKER: Yeah, that's really challenging for us as a nonprofit, especially in the space where we're helping students make really substantial financial decisions. Historically in a normal year, we would never advise a student to make a decision without a financial-aid package in front of them. We are seeing that students are feeling the pressure to have to do that. And so normally we're sitting at the majority of our students have chose to enroll in college by May 1. Right now, we're only at 30% have chosen to enroll, and of that 30%, only a handful have financial-aid award letters that they've been able to look at.

We've put in place some triaging mechanisms to get very close to estimates of to what that student can expect, but it's still very scary for a family to sort of commit to a college without knowing the line-by-line itemization of what they can be expecting in aid and what they can be expecting to take on in debt as well.

CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh. I can't even imagine. And this is happening even though many colleges gave students and families an extended deadline, right?

BG TUCKER: 100%, yeah. The U of M is today the 15th. We had a handful of schools that stuck with that May 1 deadline, and then the majority of those schools that our students are looking at are actually looking for a June 1 decision. But we do send a ton of students to the University of Minnesota, and that's a highly ranked school for the majority of our students who get in there, and so they are feeling the pressure to make that decision today. The U did offer opportunities to request extensions, but that deadline was on the 13th. So I know that we had multiple students take advantage of that just to hopefully give themselves a little bit more grace in dealing with those FAFSA issues.

CATHY WURZER: I understand completion rates, as we talked a little bit here, are lower than average across the board, but they're also quite low in school districts with more low-income students and students of color. I'm wondering, what are the ramifications of that?

BG TUCKER: Yeah, you referenced that 33% of the state is completed at this point, which puts us at almost 16% behind where we are normally. For low-income families in the state, we're sitting at 26% completion. And so the ramification is looking at how this plays out through the summer and looking at seeing a forecasted decline in enrollment and students just opting to not make the decision to enroll in college. And we know that students from low-income households, historically if they opt to take a gap year, they do not actually return to college after that one-year period.

And so for us, we're looking at, how are we triaging support throughout the summer to make sure students know that College Possible is fully staffed, even if their school is closed for the summer, to help them continue to work with higher ed to make admissions decisions, hopefully with financial-aid offers in hand?

CATHY WURZER: Would some students think that they would pay out of pocket? Have you heard of anyone thinking that they would have to do that?

BG TUCKER: I think that confusion is out there. I will say that the sort of debacle that has been the FAFSA rollout has brought FAFSA and financial-aid applications to the forefront of many students' and families' minds. So I would say that actually understanding that there is a process to apply for financial aid is probably up, but I think the lack of being able to move through the process and actually get to a point of completion and understanding how much you can be expected to pay is very prevalent right now.

And yes, we do have families concerned that, without an award letter, they would have to pay the full cost. And so that can be really challenging to work through that process with them.

CATHY WURZER: I wonder, BG, is this, as you say, a debacle and people have been just so unhappy and it's been very confusing and very stressful, I wonder if some people just look at college and say, is this a viable option and a realistic path for my kid? And I wonder how that all works out in the end.

BG TUCKER: Yeah, I would say that's one of the primary narratives we're hearing from our students and families, especially because, you know, we began triaging FAFSA support in January, and we've had families who have tried to access their form in January and February, make progress on it in March. And while the updates from the Department of Education have been ongoing so that maybe the issue they were experiencing in January has been resolved, there are also new issues that are cropping up. And so it is really disheartening for students and families to feel like an unnecessary barrier when financial aid is an intimidating topic to begin with, right? And so I predict we will see enrollment declines this fall, and that can be really tragic for the state and the nation, right, as we think about that future workforce that comes out of our college graduate pool and thinking about this class, the class of 2024.

CATHY WURZER: I wonder, BG, would some of the students-- of course, we've talked about this now for quite some time. We're seeing student enrollment declines across the board at colleges and universities across the country, right? But if a student says not to go, is there maybe a place like Dunwoody or a trade school or some other institution where a student might want to look to further their education if not, say, a four-year university like the U of M?

BG TUCKER: Most definitely. And I would also say that this emphasis on decision day is really a benchmark in time. So many colleges have extended their deadline. They are aware of what is going on. And like I said, I called out that June 1 deadline. Some are even saying, you let us know over the summer, and we will still let you in. You've done your application. We understand this has been a challenging time.

And then, of course, the two-year colleges like you mentioned-- thinking about, you know, MCTC, Saint Paul College, Hennepin Tech. Those schools are open enrollment, right? And so you can register for those classes in August, and that's still an option, a viable option for you.

CATHY WURZER: So it sounds like you have a lot of work to do this summer.

BG TUCKER: 100%, yes.

CATHY WURZER: What would you want to tell lawmakers, federal lawmakers, state lawmakers about this situation? Is there is there any way to change this and try to clean up this mess?

BG TUCKER: We've been a part of a movement that has petitioned the governor, asked for emergency funding, similar to thinking about how funding was approached during the pandemic. This is an emergency situation. There are very real ramifications to the state if this high-school class really just chooses not to access higher education because of the FAFSA complications.

Both emergency funding right now and then pressure on the Department of Education to ensure that this will not happen again. The FAFSA is supposed to open in October. It's unclear if it will be opening in October and if it will be fully operational. So really saying that this is not an issue that is ending on May 15. This is an issue that has long-term ramifications and also needs to be addressed in a timely manner as we think to the next cycle.

CATHY WURZER: All right, I appreciate your time, BG. Thank you so much.

BG TUCKER: Yeah, thank you.

CATHY WURZER: And good luck.

BG Tucker has been with us. BG is the senior director of programs at the organization called College Possible, based in Minnesota.

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