OPINION: I’m a college access professional. I had no idea filling out the new FAFSA would be so tough – Education News

OPINION: I’m a college access professional. I had no idea filling out the new FAFSA would be so tough – 24 Global News | Education News

I participated in an online completion event recently with the aim of supporting students with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form so I could gain new insights for the counselors I work with at New Visions for Public Schools.

As someone who’s been a college access professional for nearly a quarter century, it was eye-opening.

I was painfully aware that the new, “Better FAFSA” launch has been a nightmare, even though Congress passed the law that created it with the intent of making the process of completing the FAFSA form simpler for students and families and of increasing access to federal aid like the Pell Grant. Instead, the so-called Better FAFSA has been riddled with known issues, including many that have unfairly affected our most vulnerable students — specifically those whose parents do not have a Social Security number (SSN).

Now, parents without SSNs are required to obtain an FSA ID in order to sign into their child’s FAFSA. Then they must provide permission for FAFSA systems to obtain their tax information from the IRS. In short, it hasn’t been working, and many parents have been shut out of completing their part of the FAFSA.

Related: ‘Simpler’ FAFSA complicates college plans for students, families

They’re not the only ones. Many other parents and students have also been struggling to submit their information. Students who are permanent residents, for example, have struggled to enter their information on the form after entering their green card number.

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When I agreed to participate in this free online completion event, I expected more success. Although it was 3.5 hours long, I only managed to work with four families. And I was able to complete the FAFSA with only one of them, even with all my years of experience supporting students and guiding counselors through some of the most difficult financial aid scenarios and even though I was familiar with the latest updates and challenges. None of that was enough to enable me to guide more families through to completion within the three-plus hours of the event.

As discouraged as I was, I remembered that counseling, especially around financial aid, is primarily about relationships. I made sure to spend a few minutes chatting with the students and parents to put them at ease.

I affirmed the hard work they had put into the form, especially for those who had been dealing with these complications for over a month.

I even offered a little guidance around finding a good fit for college.

But if I struggled with the new form, with all my advantages, how can we possibly expect families to complete the new FAFSA on their own?

The support that counselors and other college access professionals provide will continue to be essential in keeping students engaged and motivated to pursue their postsecondary goals during this FAFSA upheaval. This work must move forward.

Here’s a bit of advice for anyone trying to help.

Those of us who do this work can learn from one another. For example, a number of my colleagues in New York City have started an email FAFSA support group in which we share updates, screenshots and other information.

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In addition, social media is full of groups hashing out FAFSA concerns, while professional organizations like the National College Attainment Network, or NCAN, have been diligently updating their FAFSA tool kits.

We can also remind students — and help them with — other forms that need to be completed, like the CSS Profile and verification forms. In short, we need to make sure that students are doing everything they can to access financial aid.

In the meantime, students who have successfully submitted the FAFSA must know that it will take weeks for their form to be processed. They will have to check their email regularly to keep track of their application and any financial aid-related requests from colleges.

It is likely that financial aid packages will not be available until April or May (schools that require the CSS Profile will be able to provide financial aid packages sooner). This dynamic disproportionately affects our lowest-income students. These students need time to compare several financial aid packages, and they should be reminded of this.

Many colleges haven’t yet extended their enrollment deadlines. That means that advocacy by students and those who work with them will be even more important to ensure they get the time needed to make these important decisions.

Related: OPINION: It’s time to stop using the FAFSA to determine who gets emergency aid

These FAFSA changes are difficult, but they must not defeat students and their families. Together we can help them succeed with the kind of hard work, information-sharing and mutual support I’ve witnessed among the counselors I work with.

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I hope we can come out on the other side and be well-prepared to continue the good fight.

 Sandy Jimenez ispostsecondary pathways resource manager at New Visions for Public Schools and a co-author of the Understanding FAFSA Guide.”

This story about the new FAFSA was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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