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FAFSA issues leave Northeast Ohio students, parents in the lurch

The federal student aid application ran into significant issues this year and last, leaving many students in the lurch.
Piotr Swat
The federal student aid application ran into significant issues this year and last, leaving many students in the lurch.

Problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have meant headaches and outright delays in college plans for students across the country, including in Northeast Ohio.

Advocates with local nonprofits that help prospective college students with college applications, like College Now Greater Cleveland and the Lake/Geauga Educational Assistance Foundation (LEAF), say their staffs have been working around the clock to help students figure out how much aid they could get for the fall 2024 semester. Despite the efforts of organizations like those, the FAFSA completion rate nationwide for high school seniors is down almost 9% compared to mid-May last year, from 50.2% to 41.5%, according to the National College Attainment Network. Ohio is down about 7%, meanwhile.

Liz Brainard, advisory director with LEAF, said that the FAFSA application wasn’t made fully available to the public until January 2024. They expected it would have been available in October 2023. Further glitches with the system, errors and other adjustments – including a change to adjust federal aid to inflation – meant many schools couldn’t start processing applications until mid-March.

Brainard said financial aid letters – explaining how much money students could get – didn’t start going out until late April, with most not reaching them until mid-May. That meant students have had to scramble in recent weeks to meet deadlines to commit to attending schools; many local colleges and universities announced in March they were pushing those deadlines back to mid-May or late June.

Isabella Gatoo-Firth, a soon-to-be graduate of Valley Forge High School in Parma Heights, is one of those students. She said she was only recently able to make the decision to go to Cleveland State University; she, like many other students across the country, could not afford to go to college without the federal aid.

“It’s just been really crazy and very unsteady, with (confusing) messages because I was being told at one time that it’s going to be in March, and then in April I finally got an estimate, but now I know for sure that I’m definitely getting some money,” she said. “It definitely shouldn’t have taken until May.”

Brainard said many students she’s been working with have been unable to commit to going to college because they and their families don’t have enough money to make such a big financial commitment. She said some have given up, opting to take a “gap year” and start working immediately.

Brainard said that’s likely going to mean problems for colleges and universities’ enrollment in the fall – many of which are already struggling with enrollment drops over the last decade.

We're going to see significantly less students matriculate to college, even community college in the fall next year, because again, (students) just don't have the resources that they would have had if they had gotten these letters a lot earlier,” she said.

Nancy Dunn, senior manager for the advising program and services with College Now Greater Cleveland, said she’s hearing similar concerns from advisers and students in the Cleveland area. Her daughter has also been affected; she just finished her first year at Kenyon College. She receives what’s known as a “gap” scholarship from an outside organization, which covers what’s left of tuition costs after federal and state aid.

“They finally sent us an email the other day that gave us the amount that they're going to give her,” Dunn explained. “But we still don't know what her gap is. And they gave her that number based on an estimate that the financial aid office at her college gave her earlier in March. So we don't know if that's accurate or not.”

Dunn said she’s also concerned about what will happen for the 2025-26 school year since the federal government has not yet stated if the FAFSA will be available at the usual time on October 1 or if there will once again be a delay.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.