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70,000 Fewer Texas High School Students Applied for Federal Financial Aid

The lower number in completed applications for aid has education advocates worried about a smaller fall enrollment this year. An overhaul of the form has caused delays and setbacks across the country.

Almost 70,000 fewer Texas high school seniors have submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms often required to get money for college than this time last year — a trend that advocates for college access fear could bode poorly for fall enrollment.

The state and nationwide decline in submissions comes alongside massive setbacks this year in the federal student aid process, stemming from an overhaul meant to make the FAFSA application easier to complete. But delays and errors along the way have prevented many universities from releasing financial aid offers for 2024-2025.

Financial aid officers are trying to make sure applicants don't get deterred: They remain optimistic that more people will submit applications and that prospective students will receive offers with time to decide where to attend, even though they're working within a shorter window since the U.S. Department of Education opened the revamped FAFSA almost three months later than normal with the soft launch on Dec. 31.

"We're trying to ramp up communications and have things queued up, ready to go," said Amy Wilson, director of financial aid and scholarships at Sam Houston State University. "Campaigns, counseling sessions, whatever we need to do to help talk them through completing the process so they don't get discouraged and stop, and then not pursue their dreams of higher education."

Sam Houston State, the University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston are among the schools that are below target on applications. Their top financial aid officers, along with Texas A&M University's, say they hope to close the gap over the next few months.

A congressional act in 2020 mandated that department officials simplify the notoriously daunting application by requiring fewer questions, enabling the FAFSA to pull tax information directly from the IRS and allowing parents without Social Security Numbers to fill out the form. The changes also paired with expanded eligibility for Pell grants for low-income students.

Colleges use the FAFSA to draft financial aid offers for both new and returning students, including loans, scholarships and grants from federal, state and university levels. Federal aid is guaranteed, but the state of Texas distributes its awards on a rolling basis, meaning that funds are doled out until they are depleted, officials said. (The state has pushed its priority deadline from Jan. 15 to April 15 as a result of the FAFSA delay.) Some institutions also have priority deadlines for internal aid.

Many applicants were unable to access the new FAFSA during the soft launch, and then a glitch blocked mixed-residency status families from filing until mid-March. And the forms processed by the government and received by colleges — already smaller in number than usual — are now being reprocessed because of errors exchanging data with the IRS and problems calculating a new student aid index, which determines the amount of money students need.

"This was intended to be a more streamlined process that would expand Pell Grant eligibility ... and some of those big picture benefits to these changes are getting obscured because of the delays," said Bill DeBaun, who created and maintains a FAFSA submission tracker for the National College Attainment Network. "But you do have to contrast that with those who have been through a real gauntlet of trying to complete their FAFSA."

Students remain in a holding pattern. Financial aid officers don't know exactly which applications have problems, and they don't want to give people the wrong offers only to renege them later, said Brian Dixon, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Texas at Austin.

He estimates that about 40 percent of applications they've received have issues — so UT and other universities can only use the data to work out kinks in their own systems, allowing them to hit "go" without error once they have the right data.

Wilson, at Sam Houston State, said she believes the school will get the reprocessed information soon and distribute financial aid packages by mid-May. Officials at the University of Houston and other public institutions believe students might have offers at the end of April, barring unforeseen circumstances.

"We're still in new territory," said Timothy Council, UH's associate vice provost for enrollment services. "We kind of don't know what obstacle may come next, and are hoping not too many more."

Texas 27 percent Lower

Some college access advocates believe that a group of students may be deterred from filling out the FAFSA because they've heard about the difficult rollout. The form's delayed opening might account for the biggest lag, and recent processing fixes could close some of the gap, said Ellie Bruecker, interim director of research at The Institute for College Access & Success.

"There's going to be students who don't fill this out, who in a normal year might have done so," Bruecker said. "But I think right now, it's hard to tell what is a permanent gap and what is just a delay, because everything has been shifted back."

Texas high schoolers' submissions on March 29 were down 27.1 percent from the same date last year, tracking slightly ahead of the U.S., where submissions are down 30.4 percent, according to federal data tracked by the National College Attainment Network.

About 159,000 Texas seniors — an estimated 4 in 10 students in the class of 2024 — have submitted the FAFSA, down from 228,000 last year. Lower-income high schools are 2 percentage points behind higher-income schools in FAFSA submissions, and the disparity tracks in high-minority schools, too. (Almost 40 percent of seniors in high-minority schools submitted a FAFSA,compared to 43 percent in low-minority schools.)

Those lower application numbers could translate to lower enrollment, although it's difficult to predict the scale, Bruecker said. Low-income students would be disproportionately affected, she said.

"That's something we really need to be especially concerned about, because financial aid packages are make-or-break for low-income students," she said. "If they don't get the resources that they need, they might not be going to college."

Nationally, some enrollment declines might be larger than those seen during COVID, said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at the National College Attainment Network. Still, officials at many of the state's largest universities said they're not too worried about getting enough students to enroll and cast predictions on those numbers — which are often used to budget for the coming year.

UH has received over 50,000 FAFSAs, about 70 percent of the number from this time last year, Council said. Enrollment won't be a large concern because prospective students submitted 2,800 more applications for admission, he said, so the main difference will come with processing times stretching into the early and late summer as more FAFSAs roll in.

"An external factor like a delay ... leaves us in some senses guessing," Council said. "But we're encouraged, again, by a substantial amount of application interest at the university."

Wilson, at Sam Houston State, said she's more worried. The university in Huntsville — which is about half the size of UH's student body and a quarter the size of Texas A&M's — dropped in enrollment by 500 students between fall 2020 and fall 2021. She pointed to a coming enrollment cliff faced by schools nationwide that will see fewer college-age students in higher education.

"This certainly doesn't help," Wilson said.

Students Playing Waiting Game

Jasline Antonio, a senior at YES Prep Northline Secondary, knows that the numbers she receives on her much-anticipated packages might determine whether she ends up at her dream school, UT- Austin.

"If it has to come down to choosing a school, it would definitely be based off financial need," Antonio said.

Students might have an idea of what they can afford because they receive a summary of projected federal awards once their FAFSA has been processed by the government, Wilson said. The exact state, and sometimes institutional, awards are still unknown to students until they receive their offers.

Some students find out their aid through alternative forms: Private schools that use the CSS have often been able to work around some of the FAFSA complications and provide offers. But the Texas Application for State Financial Aid, a state aid form often used by undocumented students, is also experiencing setbacks because of technological issues.

Many financial aid offices have extended their deadlines beyond the typical May 1 deadline for prospective students to commit to attending, as some are still weighing their options between schools while waiting for their financial aid packages. UT admits, for example, now have the option to request another month before committing, until June 1.

"As it stands, if people had to make a decision by May 1, there would be many students, they would say, 'I just don't think I'm going to be able to afford to attend,'" said Miguel V. Wasielewski, UT- Austin's executive director of admissions. "Schools are doing the very best to provide the most flexibility to students, so that when they're making the decision of where to attend, they're doing that understanding fully what their financial aid options are."

Texas A&M University extended its commitment deadline to June 1 as well, said Delisa Falks, assistant vice president of scholarships and financial aid at the College Station campus. Financial aid officials are still urging students to fill out their FAFSA forms if they haven't already.

"It's been tough," she said. "It's unfortunate that we're on a much later timeline to send out financial letters. But luckily, we've been able to be flexible and extend our deadline, which I think is helpful and something that was good to do for our families."

Fanny Caceres, a senior at Northline Secondary, is anxious to see her final offer from Lycoming College, a private school in Pennsylvania. She is otherwise glad to be done with the FAFSA.

"I guess they tried to make it easier for us, but it did not go well," she said.

(c)2024 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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