The cursing came loud and fast from a nearby room, followed by a slamming sound. This was a few years back, and I immediately suspected the culprit: the dreaded FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, with all its glitches and complexities. 

My husband was losing his cool while attempting to fill it out for the second time in two years. Across America right now, so are millions of parents, students and counselors, frustrated by a failed promise to finally streamline this unwieldy gatekeeper to college dreams.

It’s a terrible time for anyone who counted on that U.S. Department of Education promise, and many are calling for an urgent push for help, including through legislation  and a marshalling of resources from institutions like libraries and groups such as  AmeriCorps.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a full court press about FASFA completion yet,” said Bill DeBaun, a senior director at the National College Attainment Network. “This is an emergency. We need all-hands on deck: governors, state departments, agencies, influencers at the White House. We are kind of at the point where we need to stop nibbling and take a big bite.”

Anyone who has dealt with the FAFSA knows how needlessly complicated and unreliable it can be: In the midst of back-to-back college application season for my two kids, the site kept kicking us out, then losing the previous information we’d painstakingly provided. 

Don’t worry, parents were told over and over, it will get easier, it’s being fixed. A bipartisan law passed in 2020 initiated a complete overhaul of the FAFSA. But after a problematic soft launch on Dec. 30, glitches and delays are inflicting pain on undocumented students, first-generation college goers and others who can’t decide how and if attending college will be possible without offers and aid packages.

The so-called shorter, simpler form so far has been anything but, although DeBaun said many families have submitted it swiftly without problems. Still, as of March 8, there have been roughly 33 percent fewer submissions by high school seniors than last year, NCAN data show.

The finger-pointing and blaming right now is understandable, but not helpful: It threatens years of efforts to get more Americans to and through college at a time when higher education faces both enrollment declines and a crisis of public confidence, in part due to spiraling prices.

This year’s FAFSA rollout is frustrating sudents, parents and counselors and prompting calls for immediate help. Credit: Mariam Zuhaib/ Associated Press

Fewer than 1 in 3 adults now say a degree is worth the cost, a survey by the Strada Education Network found, and many fear FASFA snafus could lead to more disillusionment about college.

“FAFSA is such a massive hurdle, and if they [students and parents] can’t get this first step done, they may say it’s too complicated, maybe college isn’t for me,” said Scott Del Rossi, vice president of college and career success at College Possible, which helps low-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds go to and through college.

Del Rossi wonders why the form wasn’t user-tested before being rolled out, and is among those calling for urgent solutions, beyond band-aid fixes that are literally keeping Department of Education staffers up all night.  

Related: Simpler FAFSA complicates college plans for students and families

“As much staff as government has, it’s not enough for students right now,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the national advocacy group Complete College America. She wants colleges to do more to directly help applicants still struggling to fill out the forms.

“They should be sharing webinars and workshops and talking about what’s happening and how [students] can begin in spite of the problems,” Watson Spiva said. “If we don’t have those conversations, parents will say this [college] isn’t worth it, and they will look for other opportunities and options.”

Even before the FAFSA fiasco, that’s been happening. In 2021, the proportion of high school graduates going directly to college fell to 62 percent from a high of 70 percent in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the same time, costs have more than doubled in the last 40 years, even when adjusted for inflation.

The task ahead is daunting: The Department of Education only started sending batches of student records this week to colleges that will determine aid offers, and about 200 have already extended the traditional May 1st deadline for students to accept offers.

No wonder parents and students are “stressing out and overwhelmed,” said Deborah Yanez, parent programs manager at TeenSHARP, a nonprofit that prepares students from underrepresented backgrounds for higher education.

“This is a special time for them; they have dreamed about sending their kids off to college, but now they are being held in this place of limbo, not knowing what the numbers are,” Yanez told me.

More colleges should extend deadlines for student decisions, Del Rossi said. Counselors that College Possible works with usually say it take at least three interactions, or sessions, with parents to conquer the FAFSA, but many are now reporting the recent form requires more than six – and many are still unsuccessful, Del Rossi said.

“We have to continue to encourage them not to give up and not to lose hope,” Del Rossi said. “We tell them it is not their fault, these are just glitches, but it’s a little heartbreaking.”

But turning to college counselors for help is not always a viable option for public school students, where public school counselors handle an average caseload of 430 students, well above the 1:250 ratio the American School Counselor Association suggests.

And this admissions year has the added complication of being the first since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision barring colleges from considering race as a factor in admissions, along with being a time of rapidly changing rules around whether standardized test scores is required for admission.

Related: Will the Rodriguez family’s college dreams survive the end of affirmative action?

That’s why the message about the importance of a college education must continue, and students must be told not to give up. Still, if they can’t fill out the form and the government can’t turn the forms over to schools in time, it’s game over.

This story about the FASFA was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

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