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Way fewer students have filled out the FAFSA this year


The number of high school seniors who have filled out the federal aid form for college, known as FAFSA, is way down compared with last year. This year's form is supposed to be far simpler, but it's been plagued with delays, miscalculations and missteps. And that may mean fewer students end up in college next fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.


ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: A mariachi band is playing outside Hoover High School in San Diego, welcoming students and families to a Saturday workshop to help them fill out the FAFSA.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Inside the school, staff work with college-bound students to navigate the form.

BRENDA ALVAREZ: OK, so if you click on that and then just scroll.

NADWORNY: Brenda Alvarez, a volunteer and a student at San Diego State, is sitting behind a computer...

ALVAREZ: I would say this is probably the part that takes the longest.

NADWORNY: ...Helping Ashley Garcia, a high school senior at Hoover, fill out the form.

ALVAREZ: Like, you're frustrated not being able...


ALVAREZ: ...To submit it.

NADWORNY: The delay and then the form's errors have meant Garcia is still struggling to fill it out correctly, far later than she had hoped.

ALVAREZ: That way we can try to get past this part and then hopefully find a save button.


NADWORNY: She's still missing some tax documents so Garcia calls her mom, who has to work and couldn't be there in person.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Garcia is not alone. Many students across the country have had trouble or have waited to fill out the vital federal aid form. The form didn't come online until three months after it usually comes out. Then there were the miscalculations and missteps. Some students in mixed income-status families are still having trouble filling out the online form.

BILL DEBAUN: This year's seniors have had a much smaller window to submit a FAFSA than the class of 2023 seniors did.

NADWORNY: Bill DeBaun works for the National College Attainment Network.

DEBAUN: The starting line was pushed further back, but the finish line is staying the same.

NADWORNY: His organization tracks how many high school students have filled out the FAFSA using Department of Education data, and this year's seniors have 27% fewer FAFSA submissions. That's down about half a million students compared with the class of 2023.

DEBAUN: And that's a real concern because in some parts of the country, we're less than 10 weeks from high school graduation, right? It's not that students can't complete the FAFSA after high school graduation, it's just that in general, they have less support to do so.

NADWORNY: The form glitches are mostly fixed now, and so high schools, college access nonprofits and colleges are trying whatever they can to get students to fill out the FAFSA. And their success could have big implications for who goes to college because high school FAFSA completion numbers mean higher college enrollment numbers come fall.

DEBAUN: When students don't make a successful transition from high school to college, it decreases their likelihood of enrolling and attaining a post-secondary credential down the line.

NADWORNY: And so far, the FAFSA tracker data shows high schools with more resources have higher completion numbers.

ROCIO ZAMORA: First gen low-income students, they need to get their financial aid packages to make their decision.

NADWORNY: Rocio Zamora runs the college access program at the high school in San Diego that put on that Saturday FAFSA event. She and her staff have been working hard to get as many students as possible to fill out the form.

ZAMORA: The support is there and the messages to complete it are there, but it's more of the fact that the application wasn't ready for them and that leading to frustrations and disappointment and discouragement and just really questioning their plans.

NADWORNY: She's worried not having that financial aid piece early enough could persuade her students to make a different choice about where they go, or even if they go to college at all. So now, she says, it's crunch time to bring optimism and motivation back to the college process, and to remind her students how worth it it will be when they end up becoming the first in their family to go to college.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.