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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Colleges fear FAFSA fiasco will hurt enrollment

    Ashnaelle Bijoux poses on campus, Saturday, April 27, 2024, at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Conn. Bijoux, a senior at NFA, has been unable to complete the FAFSA form due to a glitch with the form. Without the form and the financial aid it brings, Bijoux won't be able to pursue her goal of going to Southern Connecticut State University to become a therapist. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

    This was shaping up to be a remarkable year for Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Applications were up 40 percent for the 2024-25 academic year, and the women’s liberal arts school was on track to welcome its largest freshman class in eight years.

    But the recent tumultuous rollout of the new federal financial aid form has disrupted progress. The number of students who have paid deposits to attend Mount Saint Mary’s in the fall is 7 percent lower than it was last year. Admissions workers are still hosting campus visits and coaching students through the aid process, at a time of year when enrollment should be settled.

    “We continue to be in recruitment mode,” said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment management at Mount Saint Mary’s. “Usually, we’d be done and moving on to the next class. But this year is unlike any other.”

    Some colleges and universities are heading into the summer with trepidation about next fall’s enrollment. Some are still waiting for admitted students to commit to their institutions, being patient as families weigh financial aid offers that continue to roll in. Others fear students who have paid deposits may be lured away by a late aid offer from another college. And many worry that the most vulnerable students, frustrated by the aid process, might not show up on any campus this fall.

    The disastrous debut of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a process plagued by delays, miscalculations and errors, threatens college enrollment just as schools recover from the declines brought on by the pandemic. Some schools fear the disruption could lead to budget shortfalls and deepen financial instability, especially at institutions that depend heavily on tuition dollars to keep their doors open and serve large populations of students from low-income households.

    “I have spoken to a few presidents who said they are between 20 percent and 30 percent below their anticipated enrollment target,” said Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “That’s devastating for an institution. But of course, you’re not going to see that at the big flagship publics or the wealthiest institutions. But you will see that at regional colleges. You’ll see that at small, struggling institutions, that this could be the thing that puts them over the edge.”

    The Education Department, which processes the FAFSA, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    While FAFSA completions are climbing, the numbers remain below last year’s. More than half of high school seniors had completed the form by the end of May 2023, but only 42 percent had done so this year, according to an analysis of Education Department data by the National College Attainment Network. Completions, which are a key predictor of whether high school seniors head to college, are especially tepid at schools with high percentages of Black, Latino and low-income students. And the impact is starting to show up in enrollment numbers.

    Kim DeRego, head of enrollment at the University of New Hampshire, has seen a 4 percent drop in deposits from families earning a bit above $50,000.

    The most selective institutions that are flush with cash and can easily fill gaps in aid to fill their seats will emerge unscathed, but a majority of schools must grapple with some level of uncertainty surrounding their incoming class. Many remain optimistic that they will hit their enrollment targets, or at least come close. Still, so much is out of their control at this late stage in the admissions cycle.

    At Mount Saint Mary’s, employees are still chasing down would-be freshmen who need to make corrections to their FAFSAs, a process that opened months later than anticipated.

    Financial aid is essential for students at Mount Saint Mary’s, where 67 percent of the admitted pool qualify for Pell Grants, a form of federal aid for undergraduates with exceptional financial need. The private school, with roughly 2,400 students, is still on target to meet its enrollment goal of around 450 freshmen, Dileno said. But she suspects that number may dip as some enrollees change their minds before the school year begins, a common problem known as summer melt.

    Colleges always anticipate some amount of melt, but higher education experts worry this year will be especially tough because students are receiving financial aid offers much later in the admissions cycle than usual. According to the latest poll by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, 28 percent of colleges had not begun preparing financial aid offers as of May 7. Many colleges have extended their deposit deadlines to give students more time to receive and compare packages.

    “A student may accept our award [package] right now, but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” said Kara Turner, senior vice president for enrollment management at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “We’re still operating on the assumption that we’re going to get close to the record enrollment of the past three years … but we may not.”

    Kiely Fletcher, vice provost in the office of enrollment management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she hopes that as prospective students get aid offers from other schools, they will see the public research university as the most affordable option. But she knows it could go the other way.

    “It’s going to be a very unpredictable summer,” Fletcher said. “Without question, it could have downstream effects on our budget, our college’s operations. Even though we’re a large public institution, we serve low-income students here. We’re not sitting on a $14 billion endowment. Tuition revenue is really a consideration … so not having a reliable predictor of where we will land in the fall is causing anxiety.”

    UIC has extended its enrollment deadline twice to accommodate students. With a little over two months until the start of the fall semester, Fletcher said she is still hearing from families who are struggling to complete the FAFSA. The situation is especially dire for U.S.-born students whose undocumented parents lack a Social Security number. Students from mixed-immigration-status households have made up nearly 10 percent of UIC’s enrolled population of 33,000 in previous years, Fletcher said.

    Despite the Education Department’s efforts to resolve technical glitches that have barred undocumented parents from completing their part of the FAFSA, Fletcher said parents are still having trouble verifying their identities. The university, she said, can’t provide an aid offer without having a financial aid form on file, and students are reluctant to enroll without a clear picture of how much they’ll have to pay.

    Jana Kay Lunstad, director of financial aid at Washington State University Tri-Cities, worries that students shut out of the federal form will miss out on critical Pell funding. The maximum Pell award and state award equals almost $19,000 in grant aid, more than enough to cover tuition and fees for in-state students, she said. But that windfall is out of reach for mixed-status families who remain trapped by the dysfunctional FAFSA.

    “These are barriers that are affecting our most vulnerable students, the ones whose parents are often least able to help them,” Lunstad said.

    The Education Department is temporarily allowing students to complete the FAFSA before their parents verify their identities. Department officials have said they are working to find a permanent solution.

    The federal agency is still contending with other loose ends that may affect where, or whether, students enroll. It still hasn’t processed paper FAFSA forms or given colleges a chance to make corrections to the application - steps the department has said would get underway by the end of June. The department is also investigating why some completed FAFSAs are generating a blank Student Aid Index - a number used to determine how much federal aid applicants should receive - with no apparent errors, leaving colleges unable to process the form.

    “It’s frustrating that we’re not in a position to make corrections so late in the game,” said Davida L. Haywood, vice president of enrollment management at Johnson C. Smith University, a private historically Black institution in North Carolina. School corrections include adjustments to award packages for families contending with a job loss, salary reduction or other circumstances that make it hard to pay for school. Roughly 73 percent of students at JCSU, with an enrollment of 1,045, are typically eligible for Pell.

    Although comprehensive enrollment data won’t be released until the fall, Perez at the admissions association said he is hearing about declines at a number of colleges. His organization is supporting high schools and community groups in helping high school graduates navigate the FAFSA over the summer to make sure the problems don’t prevent them from enrolling.

    “This isn’t just about colleges making their numbers - that’s important, but this is about a pipeline of hundreds of thousands of students who will not be in college,” Perez said. “And that has devastating impacts for the economy in the future.”

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