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Opinion | FAFSA foul-ups? Apply anyway

Students, I get it.

It isn’t easy applying to college. The application itself may only take 20 minutes or so, but there’s a lot of hoops and hurdles you go through to build academic and extracurricular records that not only show your ability to be successful in college, but give you the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be successful once you arrive on campus.

Patrick O’Connor headshot
Patrick O’Connor is a board member of the Michigan College Access Network, and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some take tests, some give up summers for additional learning experiences, some beg parents to let them at least try college, and all understand what college can do for them, as well as what they can do for college. You’re about as ready as you can be, and when it’s time to apply, it’s easy to see if you get frustrated when the simple act of applying gets complicated.

But that’s what the US Department of Education has done, at least when it comes to applying for financial aid. Last February 1, 6 million students had filed a FAFSA.  This February 1, that number was 3 million—and the number of Michigan students applying for aid is down 36%. The December 31 “rollout” of a new version of FAFSA was supposed to make paying for college easier, but the new version had flaws, and more flaws are being discovered nearly every week.  Parents without Social Security numbers couldn’t apply at all for quite some time, and, depending on who you talk to, they still can’t.  Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect formulas used to calculate eligibility.  Colleges were notified that, in all likelihood, they won’t get the FAFSA information they need until May 1 to put together final, real financial aid packages.

Counselors who work with low-income and first-generation students know it takes a lot to convince most students college is worth a try, and that it doesn’t take much to derail their interest in the process if it gets too complicated—and that’s easy to understand. This isn’t just about writing drafts of college essays; it’s about the messages from the adults involved in the admissions and application process. Many students are convinced they aren’t really welcome in the world of higher education. Give wrong advice on a web page, or tell them to come back later with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, and you will simply not hear from them ever again.

Colleges understand this, and they are doing everything they can to let students know two things:

  1. We want you to apply to our college.
  2. We want to do everything we can to help pay for it.

Given everything they’ve had to go through, students and families applying for aid are understandably frustrated with everything that’s happening.  Given that, here’s my advice:

It is never great when the people who are supposed to help you actually get in the way of you achieving a goal, but that doesn’t mean the goal is less important to you—it just means it’s a little harder to achieve.  Some of you didn’t pass your driver’s test on the first try, but you still got your license, because it mattered. Some of you weren’t exactly LeBron James when you first picked up a basketball, or played the guitar like Prince when you first picked up your musical instrument. But you practiced, and you got better.

Applying for financial aid, at least this year, is the same thing. It’s only supposed to take one try, but for some reason, this year it’s going to take more than that. If you’re completing a FAFSA to go to college, college is still cool, and you still deserve to go. Persist.

If you’re using your FAFSA for technical training, that job is still going to pay way more than the local sandwich shop now, and will pay way, way more over 30 years. Persist.

No matter why you’re completing your FAFSA, you’re likely going to end up making more money, living a better life, and understanding more about yourself if it helps pay for the experience you’re looking for. Persist.

Help is here if you need it. Start with your high school counselor—and yes, I know they see a zillion students, so getting to see them might be a challenge. You’re worth putting in the time. Persist.

You can also reach out to the Michigan College Access Network. They have FAFSA pros who can help you, for free. They are trained experts in FAFSA, and it doesn’t matter if they are near where you live—they want to help you.  The list is here.

This FAFSA nightmare was never supposed to happen, and many of the adults involved with helping students go to college are asking for big changes to make sure it never happens again.  It’s hard to say how long that’s going to take—but then again, that kind of doesn’t matter.  For now, we’re going to focus on you, and what we need to do to help you reach your goal for life after high school.

For better or worse, the next step is yours to take, but we’re here, with real help, when you take it.  Persist.

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