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Michigan FAFSA challenges: High school seniors slow to fill out form

 Close up of federal financial aid application with calculator and tuition statement
Students and their families are dealing with a college financial aid process riddled with delays and confusion. The FAFSA form can help students save thousands on college costs through grants and scholarships but fewer students are filling it out than last year at this time. (iStock photo by Richard Stephen)
  • Less than one-third of Michigan high school seniors have submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
  • The FAFSA process has been riddled with delays affecting students and colleges
  • College financial-aid administrators worry some students will leave free money on the table and college enrollment will decline

Less than one-third of Michigan high school seniors have filled out the federal form critical to receive college scholarships, grants and loans.

University enrollment and financial aid administrators worry that low rate of submission mean students will miss out on important funds to help pay for college and that some students will choose to forgo going to college altogether.

Michigan ranks 27th in states for the rate of high school seniors who have submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, according to the National College Attainment Network, or NCAN.

 

Just 32.1% of state high school seniors had filled out the form through March 22, compared to 43.4% of state high school seniors at the same time last year, according to NCAN analysis. 

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Nationally, only 33.7% of seniors had filled out the form, compared with 48.3% in 2023. 

Experts attribute some of the sluggish application rate to a rocky rollout by the federal government, which updated the form in an attempt to make it more simple. But the updated form's rollout was delayed, inflation figures had to be corrected, and schools are having to wait longer to process the student financial information from the government and send college aid offers to potential students.

“Right now, my biggest worry is that more students are self-selecting out of college as a whole,” said Katie Condon, vice president of enrollment management at Eastern Michigan University.

These delays mean students are still waiting to be able to fix errors in their forms and schools are scrambling to get financial aid offers out the door. 

Sarah Kasabian-Larson, director of scholarships and financial aid at Central Michigan University, called the low rate of submission “concerning but not surprising because the FAFSA had such a rocky rollout.” 

Despite the rollout issues, Kasabian-Larson and others are encouraging students to fill out the form. 

Jamie Jacobs, deputy director of the Michigan College Access Network, a group that works to increase college access, said students should fill out the FAFSA and and ask for help from school counselors or financial-aid experts at college and universities. 

“File now amidst the hurdles, find the support, get it in, don’t delay,” she said. 

In a typical year, Ferris State University would have started awarding future students aid in December of their high school senior year, said Kristen Salomonson, the university’s dean of enrollment services. 

But with the federal government’s delays, Salomonson said even students who fill out the form in the next couple of weeks are “right on time,” since the school hasn’t started awarding aid yet. 

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Diann Cosme, director of Mi Student Aid at the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential, told Bridge last week she recommends that students have their finances sorted out before they receive their fall university bill, which can sometimes come in July. 

“It is a free application, (so) there is no harm in completing the application,” Cosme said. “But there are possibilities of additional resources. And you won't know what those possibilities are without completing that application.” 

FAFSA is gateway to many state and university scholarships 

Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at NCAN, said the submission rate should be cause for concern. 

“We're very far behind, and in some parts of the country, we only have 10 weeks to go until high school graduation, so we should be alarmed,” DeBaun said. 

Many colleges and universities in the state provide tuition-free guarantees for students who meet certain family-income requirements. But students must fill out the FAFSA for schools to determine if they qualify. 

The FAFSA is also the key form for several state scholarships, including the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which provides up to $2,750 a year for community college, $4,000 a year for private college and $5,500 a year for public university in Michigan for recent high school graduates. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is encouraging students to fill out the FAFSA through social media posts and media releases. DeBaun, of the national college group, said he would like to see more governors use the bully pulpit to explain the importance of the form. 

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Roughly 52.3% of Michigan high school seniors had submitted the FAFSA by June 30 last year and 53.7% of public high school graduates attended college within six months of graduating high school.

For students who want to attend school in the 2024-2025 school year, the federal FAFSA deadline is June 30, 2025, but colleges and the state tend to have much earlier deadlines. 

Colleges adjust deadlines

At Ferris State, the university is increasing scholarship amounts to sweeten the pot for students to enroll.

EMU is sending email reminders out to admitted students to encourage them to fill out the FAFSA, and Cosme said the state’s outreach staff may need to do more FAFSA events later in the academic year than is typical.

At CMU and Wayne State University, officials pushed back the deadline for when students can get their enrollment deposit refunded.

The state also pushed back a May 1 deadline to July 1 for FAFSA completions for two state college aid programs scholarships and grants. 

Schools prepare offers, students will soon be able to correct forms

The low submission rate is also a cause for concern because many of those students still must correct their forms before they can be eligible for aid.

 

Kasabian-Larson, of Central Michigan, said last week that of the FAFSAs her school has received, roughly 15% of them have been rejected, meaning more information is needed before the federal government and schools can provide an assessment of the students’ financial situation. 

Shreya Patel, a high school senior in Canton, submitted her form in early January, just days after the form was released. But as of Friday, she is still waiting for the federal government to allow her to correct her form. 

Her financial aid portal shows an “action required,” but Patel and other students  cannot update their forms yet. The U.S. Department of Education says students will be able to update their form in the “first half of April.” 

Patel, who plans on attending the University of Michigan, said she knew it was important to fill out the FAFSA but is “a little bit worried” about whether she will receive college aid. 

“It’s kind of weird being that year where the whole thing changed. It’s been kind of hard keeping up with updates… I feel like the communication could have been better.”

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