Amid FAFSA debacle, these higher ed leaders strive to ensure no student is left behind

"We exist because the system is not providing this service for students of color and other underresourced students," says Siva Kumari, CEO of College Possible.

Higher education leaders unloaded their grievances over the Department of Education’s botched FAFSA rollout in a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. As much as this experience has eroded their confidence in the Department and left financial aid offices in a state of limbo, they did not mince words about how it will have a lasting impact on the enrollment of the country’s neediest students.

“The lowest-income students are hurt the most,” Rachelle Feldman, vice provost of enrollment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said at the hearing. “I worry most about a student in rural North Carolina who’s heard all their life that college is out of their reach while they worked hard for 12 years, and we can’t get them the document proving they can. We lose out on that talent.”

The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) estimates that, as of March 29, 35% of students have submitted the FAFSA this year, a 27% drop compared to last year. Rates of completion for students at low-income high schools and for those that contain 40% or more Black and Hispanic students are even lower.

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College Possible, a nonprofit dedicated to servicing low-income and minority students through their higher education journey, has so far ensured that 56% of their students have filed for FAFSA, says CEO Siva Kumari. High school students connected with the nonprofit receive a near-peer coach who recently graduated from college that helps walk them through the application process, a common pitfall for students without a social security number, who aren’t proficient in English or who simply don’t understand that financial aid exists to help them. NCAN estimates that high school seniors last year left more than $4 billion on the table for not completing FAFSA.

“It’s the persistence in communication we’ve built into this program,” Kumari says. “We exist because the system is not providing this service for students of color and other underresourced students.”

Students with access to College Possible will still receive correspondence from their near-peer coaches if they defer attending college due to this year’s blunders. What worries Kumari are the high school seniors this application season who will “fall through the net” when they graduate from high school and find a job without anyone advocating for their return to school. Fractures in the K12-higher education pipeline leave students with a higher probability of “getting derailed and losing traction” to apply to a two- or four-year program.

“I’m really worried about the millions of students from low-income families who don’t have this kind of support,” she says.

Christine Harper, associate vice president for enrollment management and chief enrollment officer at the University of Kentucky, estimates that 20% fewer of its admitted student population are FAFSA filers than this time last year. This is a concerning drop off, considering 24.7% of its first-year students were Pell recipients in fall 2023, according to Harper

Nevertheless, the University of Kentucky is fighting to ensure it isn’t losing out on its low-income and underrepresented students. In a strange stroke of luck, 2020 has prepared Harper for this moment. She compares those who potentially fall through the cracks this year to those lost during the disruption of the pandemic. One of the most vital lessons she’s learned is that encouraging underresourced students to apply can be particularly challenging because they are usually the least likely to reach out for support.

UK’s enrollment office is conducting a series of targeted outreach efforts to find “lost students.” First, the university has extension offices in every country, which are general hubs of communication for rural students and their families. In counties where there are 50% fewer FAFSA filers than last year, UK will connect with related high schools and their counselors.

The university also joins a growing list of institutions, like The Ohio State University and the University of California and California State University systems, that have chosen to extend their confirmation deadlines to May 15.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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