Experts fear ‘catastrophic’ college declines thanks to botched FAFSA rollout

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The last thing standing between Ashnaelle Bijoux and her college dream is the FAFSA form — a financial aid application that’s supposed to help students go to college, but is blocking her instead. She has tried to submit it over and over. Every time, it fails to go through.

“I feel overwhelmed and stressed out,” said Bijoux, 19. She came close to tears the last time she tried the form. “I feel like I’m being held back.”

Normally a time of celebration for high school seniors, this spring has been marred by the federal government’s botched rollout of the new FAFSA application. By May 1, students usually know where they’re headed to college in the fall. This year, most still haven’t received financial aid offers. Three months before the start of fall classes, many don’t know where they’re going to college, or how they’re going to pay for it.

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, went through a massive overhaul that was supposed to make it simpler and shorter. But a series of blunders by the Education Department made it harder than ever, delaying college decisions by months and raising fears that hundreds of thousands of students will forgo college entirely.

Across the United States, the number of students who have successfully submitted the FAFSA is down 29% from this time last year, and it’s even worse at schools with more low-income students, according to the National College Attainment Network.

The group’s CEO, Kim Cook, warned members of Congress this month about a potentially “catastrophic” drop in college enrollments that would make the decreases of the pandemic seem mild.

For Bijoux, of Norwich, Connecticut, the FAFSA problems threaten to undermine the promise of higher education.

To her, college is a chance to seize the opportunities that weren’t available to her mother, who immigrated from Haiti to the U.S. as an adult. Bijoux hopes to become a therapist and set a positive example for her three younger brothers.

If her FAFSA goes through, she should be eligible for enough financial aid to help with the $ 13,000-a-year tuition at Southern Connecticut State University. If not, she might go to a local community college, but even that would require loans if she can’t complete the FAFSA.

“That’s why it hurts, because it’s like you work so hard to go somewhere and do something and make something of yourself,” Bijoux said. “I thought I would start at a four-year (college) and then work hard continuously, like I’ve been doing basically my whole life. But that’s not the case.”

The updated FAFSA form has one section filled out by students and another by their parents. But when Bijoux finishes her part, nothing shows up on her mom’s online account. She keeps trying, but nothing seems to change.

Similar problems have been reported across the country, along with numerous other bugs that the Education Department has scrambled to fix. Families who call for customer service have faced long wait times or say the call center hung up on them.

It “drains all the momentum” from families working to send their children to college, especially those navigating the process for the first time, said Anne Zinn, a counselor at Norwich Free Academy, where Bijoux goes to school.

“I can only say so many times, ‘Just be patient, just be patient,’ before they throw their hands up and they’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m just gonna go get a job,’” she said.

The rollout has attracted bipartisan criticism in Congress, and it’s being investigated at the request of Republicans. Last week, Richard Cordray, the federal student loan chief who oversaw the FAFSA update, announced he’s stepping down at the end of June.

For colleges, too, the delays pose a major threat.

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