College leaders beg Minnesotans to submit FAFSA to get financial aid for school

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Only 33 percent of high school seniors in Minnesota had completed applications for financial aid as of May 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

State officials are teaming up with college access advocates and school leaders to address low FAFSA completion rates following months of technical challenges with the form.

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 support to cover the cost of attending an institution of higher education.

Notoriously long and complicated, the FAFSA changed this year with the goal to make the process simpler for applicants. But the rollout was plagued with issues — a delayed release, glitches, forgotten adjustment for inflation.

Only 33 percent of high school seniors in Minnesota had completed applications for financial aid as of May 3, the most recent date for which data was available from the National College Attainment Network. That’s a 16 percent decrease compared to last year. Completion rates are lower than average in school districts with more low-income students and students of color.

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“A core reason for the drop in FAFSA completion this year is due to technical issues with a new FAFSA form. Many Minnesotans were unable to start their form, let alone complete it,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at a news conference on Monday.

“Those issues have been addressed and we stand here to encourage all Minnesotans to try again.”

Flanagan stood before a podium in the Governor’s Reception Room at the State Capitol with a crowd of nearly two dozen college access advocates, including student leaders and representatives from different colleges.

They announced a coordinated campaign to address FAFSA completion rates, with the state investing $30,000 toward the effort, and directing students and families to a variety of resources across Minnesota.

“If this roadblock, if this process is becoming a challenge to you, and you are even doubting attending college, there’s still time. Please reach out to any of us in higher education,” said Omar Correa, vice president of strategic enrollment management at the University of St. Thomas. “We want to make sure that this is not the reason that you don’t pursue your college career.”

FAFSA challenges

Karina Villeda, 28, is a first-generation college junior studying at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She said she didn’t even know the FAFSA — or financial aid — existed until right before her first semester in college.

“I would have paid out of pocket without knowing … I’ve never had anyone guide me on the process and I think that has a lot to do with me being a non-traditional student.”

“I wish I would have been told about it when I was in school almost 10 years ago. Because if that was the case, then I would have just gone to college right after high school, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case,” she added.

Villeda said the FAFSA was relatively quick and easy for her to complete this year compared to past years — it took less than 15 minutes. More of an issue? Not yet knowing what her financial aid package will look like for next year.

Some colleges have sent out financial aid packages later than usual due to delayed reporting from FAFSA. It will determine what classes she can afford to take, and in turn how many hours she can work and how long her daughter has to be enrolled in day care.

“I would really like to see my financial aid package, just so I know what my schedule will be like,” Villeda said.

Macalester student Anahi Sanchez explained the FAFSA changes have critically impacted families with mixed citizen status like hers. For months, parents without Social Security numbers could not create accounts or sign forms.

“I remember one day when my dad had took a morning off from work to make a verification call right at 8 a.m., the time that they opened up,” Sanchez said.

“He was on the phone line for like hours before eventually being hung up on. And then this didn’t just happen once, this happened on various occasions. Three.”

In a letter to Gov. Tim Walz in mid-April, a coalition of organizations said the FAFSA rollout “has created a crisis that has put Minnesota’s students, institutions and skilled workforce in jeopardy.”

“We know if students don’t complete the FAFSA, they’re less likely to go to college because they just can’t afford it at all,” said Mike Dean, executive director of North Star Prosperity, one of eight organizations that signed the letter.

“We’re not here to cast blame on who’s responsible for it, but how do we find ways to really help Minnesota students complete the FAFSA to take advantage of all this financial aid that will help make college affordable?” Dean told MPR News.

This comes as state and school officials had hoped to boost in college enrollment with investments in higher education like the North Star Promise Scholarship program, which covers tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for Minnesota residents with family adjusted gross incomes under $80,000. To qualify, students must complete the FAFSA (or the Minnesota Dream Act application, if undocumented).

On Monday, leaders with the University of St. Thomas (speaking for all private universities in the state) and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system said they’re seeing increased college applications for next fall, despite the FAFSA complications.

“This is also why we want to focus so heavily on encouraging students to complete the FAFSA, so that they can follow through on those applications,” said Paul Shepherd, interim associate vice chancellor of student affairs and enrollment management for the Minnesota State system.

He said Minnesota state schools do not have decision deadlines, so students can still submit the FAFSA and enroll for classes. Many other colleges and universities have pushed back their priority deadlines to accommodate late notice of how much students would be expected to pay for college.

Student support

On Monday, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education announced $15,000 grants to two organizations already offering individualized help with the FAFSA: College Possible and Achieve Twin Cities.

The organizations will offer one-on-one support to students and families seeking to complete the FAFSA. The state grants will allow them to expand beyond their existing student base to offer more interpretation for multilingual families, in addition to hotlines, webinars and summer staffing. They are also available to partner with school districts and community centers.

Dennis Olson is commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. At the news conference on Monday, he said the goal is to get students to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.

“There is still time to apply for financial aid,” said Olson. “But honestly that time is now.”

Achieve Twin Cities will support Minneapolis and St. Paul public school students. College Possible is available to support students statewide.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a similar grant program offering up to $50 million for grantees nationwide to boost FAFSA completion rates.

Olson said the state agency will apply for federal grants, but he also encourages school partners to apply directly.

“It’s an incredibly important effort,” Olson said.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education has a list of resources for help completing the Free Application for Financial Aid on its website: FAFSA Completion Resources (state.mn.us)