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Changes to FAFSA heighten stress for college-bound students

FAFSA changes heighten stress for college-bound students

Local college readiness organizations work to mitigate the challenges posed by recent changes to the financial aid process.

Federal student aid papers and small Square academic cap.
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Recent changes to the financial aid application process for the 2023-24 college application cycle are delaying student aid packages, changing the way local college readiness organizations assist students who are applying. 

Some of the changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) include no longer inquiring about students’ housing intentions and having other family members in college no longer be considered in federal aid calculations. The U.S. Department of Education said the form is now “simplified, redesigned and streamlined” in a press release in January.

However, both higher education institutions and other college preparation organizations have been forced to readjust their processes for how packages are calculated and how aid is distributed.

On Point for College and Say Yes Syracuse are local organizations that guide students on their path to pursuing higher education and are dealing with these issues firsthand. On Point serves most of Central New York as a college-attainment program and Say Yes serves the Syracuse City School District in helping students obtain a college degree with the least amount of debt possible.

Ahmeed Turner, executive director of Say Yes, says the new FAFSA form has significant implications for students who are deciding where to spend the next four years because students are not able to see what other scholarships, aid and grants will be offered to them, causing anxiety around “choosing the right college” since they are forced to go off of the sticker price.

“The disadvantage for marginalized populations is that without knowing the true cost of attendance, it’s going to limit the options that they have,” Turner said.

Leigh Petryssyn, director of college success at On Point, explained further that the delay creates a negative domino effect for students, especially because many of them are flagged for “verification” and are asked to send additional documents. While students wait for financial aid information, they may not be able to register, or register so late that the classes they want to take are unavailable. 

“A bad schedule is an indicator of potentially not having success because it doesn’t work with your life,” Petryssyn said. “And then you don’t do well your first semester and now you’re already in this pattern of ‘Oh, well, now I just lost my aid, because I didn’t do well the first time.’”

These critical issues in the college application process disproportionately affect first-generation and low-income students – the majority of students both organizations serve.  

Annalisa Parker, a high school senior from California, said that among herself and her classmates, the application process has been especially stressful due to the change in consideration for the number of students per household.

“Parents are helping us pay for college but also managing a household and kids who aren’t in college yet but will be soon,” Parker said. “If they pay for [my sister] fully, it’ll be very difficult to pay for my brother and I.”

Parker explained that this adds to the financial burden on top of the extracurricular activities students are expected to maintain for college acceptance and scholarships, further complicating the decision-making process.

To mitigate uncertainties, On Point coordinates FAFSA workshops with local high schools where parents can learn how to fill out the forms and set up their account. Say Yes has also been a part of virtual information events for parents hosted by SCSD’s Office of Family Engagement.

For Turner, these meetings were the most helpful because the questions were “rich” and parents personally requested that Say Yes join for a few meetings.

Despite financial aid challenges and uncertainty, both organizations noticed an uptick in college enrollment in general and a return to pre-pandemic levels.

A recent survey from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that undergraduate enrollment increased by 2.1% last fall – the first increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Turner says he is optimistic and hopes the uptick in enrollment correlates to the pandemic being a “blip.”

“College is the most effective bridge to economic freedom,” Turner said. “More folks that have a degree vote, they’re more civically involved. I mean, everything you could think of.”