April 12, 2024

Indiana’s FAFSA deadline is here. High schools don’t know who has filed

A family works on completing the FAFSA form at Lawrence Central High School on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. - Rachel Fradette / WFYI

A family works on completing the FAFSA form at Lawrence Central High School on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

Rachel Fradette / WFYI

Indiana high school seniors are required to file the federal application for college financial aid for the first time this year. In the final days before the state deadline, school counselors and advisors are scrambling to help students complete the form.

But they face a critical barrier — they don’t know who has filed the application and who hasn’t.

That’s just one of the hitches with the federal form that has plagued students and educators during the first year of the state’s mandate. The federal government is rolling out a new version of the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, that’s supposed to be simpler. But federal lawmakers describe it as a “disaster” and a “crisis.”

The application opened months later than usual and significant technical problems made it harder for students to file, especially those whose parents don’t have social security numbers. And because federal data from the applications are delayed, schools don’t have access to data on who has filed the form.

“We are making phone calls every day trying to get families to complete their FAFSA,” said Jana Goebel, principal of Irvington Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Indianapolis. “It's a struggle, and it's a push and we're just doing everything we can to get them across that line.”

As a result of the federal delays and system malfunctions, the number of high school seniors who have filed the application is down across the country compared to last year. Educators and advocates worry that months of these problems will lead some families to skip filing all together and some students, unaware of potential aid, to decide not to go to college.

"The heaviest burden falls on those families that this process is meant to help the most — those families who aren't going to go to college without this financial help," Goebel said.

FAFSA mandate amid a troubled overhaul

The FAFSA is crucial for students to get help paying for college. It’s used to determine federal grants and loans, as well as aid from colleges. Indiana requires students to file the form by April 15 to get money from the need-based Frank O’Bannon grant or from the 21st Century Scholars program. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education said that if a student has filed the form by that deadline, it is sufficient, even if the form needs revisions or has not been processed.

In Indiana, about 38% of seniors have submitted the application so far, according to federal data from April 8. That’s about 16% lower than the submission rate in 2023. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said in an email that they are working to boost FAFSA completion. 

“We are committed to communicating regularly with schools and families during this new FAFSA process,” they said in an email. “We are providing regular operational updates, and we will continue to quickly identify, resolve, and communicate issues should they arise.”

This week the department also said more than one million students who were able to file the form, must now submit a correction due to an error. 

The FAFSA submission dip in Indiana, however, is one of the lowest in the nation. That may be a result of the new mandate, which requires all seniors to file the application by April 15 or opt out. Indiana is now one of seven states that require students to file the form, and states typically see a boost in completion rates when mandates begin, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Although the 2023 law doesn’t have penalties for students who don’t file, the mandate still adds extra urgency to the FAFSA application. It also opens up dialogue with students who are not planning to go to a four-year college, said Rebecca Daugherty-Saunders, Director of College and Career Readiness for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township.

"For the first time, I'm having conversations with families, and they're like, ‘well, but he wants to be a plumber. So he doesn't need to fill out the FAFSA,’” Daugherty-Saunders said. She tells them, “‘Oh, absolutely, he needs to fill it out, because he can still get free money to pay for his plumbing certification.’"

Schools scramble to help

In the weeks leading up to the state deadline, Indianapolis school staff scrambled to help students file the FAFSA. A bilingual liaison in Lawrence Township keeps a spreadsheet of families she is trying to contact. On the other side of the city, a Wayne Township teacher yelled across the high school lunchroom to tell students about FAFSA help. And from its downtown office, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education sent reminder letters to thousands of high school seniors.

Still, educators say many high schoolers and their families do not seem to know that the FAFSA is now required for all seniors. And many do not know whether they have successfully filed. 

At Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township, staff usually plan outreach based on a spreadsheet from the state that shows which students have filed the form. Without that information, the school is hosting FAFSA nights and encouraging students to file. But with over 1,000 seniors, they struggled to target students who need help.

“I put out emails. I go on the intercom, telling them about the senior support lab and these opportunities to help them,” said Kiara Cross, college admissions coordinator. But ultimately, "I am completely reliant on students to come to me.”

Because FAFSA requires students to create a federal student aid login before filing, Cross is concerned some students who have only created the account will mistakenly believe they are done. 

The number of Ben Davis students who submitted the form is 23 percent less compared to a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Education database of how many students have filed FAFSA by district and high school as of March 29. The department said districts can use that data to track their progress. But it does not include the individual level information that would allow high schools to target students who have not filed. 

High schools get student-level FAFSA data from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. Typically, the commission starts getting that data from the federal government in October and receives updates throughout the year. But this year, the commission did not start getting federal data until late-March, and they expect to share it with schools in late April and early May. 

School districts across Indianapolis said that was a problem that made it more difficult to help students. 

At Lawrence Central High School, bilingual liaison Pilar Sanchez Mainar calls families one-by-one to find out where they are in the process, and she keeps a spreadsheet to track what parents she was able to reach. 

“I talk to the families through the phone and they say, ‘Well, we already filed the FAFSA,'” Sanchez Mainar said. But when she shows them how to check the application status online, many families are only part way through the process. 

“Families don't know what their status is, so I'm having to inform the families,” she said. 

The lack of data on which students have filed the form is also a problem at North Central High School in Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, said Kimberly Dickerson the student programs coordinator. 

Students and families at North Central faced technical difficulties with the FAFSA website when it opened. Many of the technical problems have been fixed. But Dickerson is still worried about the time constraint.

“The biggest problem is the log jam and the stress of trying to do it all at the last minute,” Dickerson said. “Having to wait as long as people have had to wait, now there's a big scramble and a mad dash at the end.”

WFYI education reporters Rachel Fradette and Sydney Dauphinais contributed to this story.

Contact WFYI investigative education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at dmccoy@wfyi.org.


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