FAFSA filings are down, leaving Georgia college-bound students in limbo

Daisha Campbell (right), a student and FAFSA adviser, helps parent Tomika Joyce (left) as she works on a FAFSA form for her daughter as Isaiah Nelson (background), a student and FAFSA adviser, looks on at the FAFSA Completion Center at Georgia Gwinnett College on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lawrenceville. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)



Daisha Campbell (right), a student and FAFSA adviser, helps parent Tomika Joyce (left) as she works on a FAFSA form for her daughter as Isaiah Nelson (background), a student and FAFSA adviser, looks on at the FAFSA Completion Center at Georgia Gwinnett College on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lawrenceville. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

A digital billboard just off Ga. 316 in Lawrenceville displays a message that beckons Georgia Gwinnett College students to the campus: “Need help?”

The billboard and other, smaller signs that line the campus sidewalks point the way to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Completion Center.

On a sunny June day, dozens of students, some accompanied by their parents, stopped in and asked for help. The college opened the center in April to rescue students struggling with long-running federal delays and technical glitches since a redesigned version of the FAFSA, meant to streamline the application process, opened in late December.

That was three months behind the typical launch, and continuing setbacks have left students scrambling to fill out the form that’s required to receive federal grants and loans that many depend on to pay for college. Some of Georgia’s most selective colleges pushed back enrollment deadlines to mid-May to give students more time to compare costs and decide where they’re going, and counseling organizations and colleges have ramped up assistance efforts.

Still, many students are spending this summer, when they might otherwise be picking out dorm room decorations, in financial aid limbo. Experts worry the holdup could jeopardize the educational futures of some low-income students and keep them from going to college when classes begin for most students in August.

“If you do not have your FAFSA done yet, you’re in a precarious situation for fall enrollment,” said Taylor Ramsey, executive director of OneGoal in metro Atlanta, which provides college guidance help in a dozen area high schools.

Most of the 900 students the group serves are students of color and also are eligible for the federal Pell Grant, which provides up to $7,395 next school year to students with great financial need. Some are just now getting aid award letters from colleges.

A local and national decline

As of late May, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said FAFSA numbers nationally are down 11% from last year, at 10.4 million submissions. He’s acknowledged frustrations and promised to bring on a new chief to oversee financial aid and to conduct “a full-scale review.”

In Georgia, the National College Attainment Network reports about 42% of seniors in the high school class of 2024 had completed a FAFSA as of May 31, or just over 53,000 students. That’s about 9,000 fewer completions than at the same point last year, it said.

Students and parents get help with filling out FAFSA forms at the FAFSA Completion Center at Georgia Gwinnett College on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lawrenceville. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)


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With just weeks to go before Georgia Gwinnett’s July 6 deadline to complete the FAFSA for the fall semester, the tables in its help center filled up. Students huddled with financial aid staffers and lobbed a barrage of questions: Is my application complete? Has my FAFSA been processed? How do I file an appeal?

“It’s kind of confusing, that’s why I had to come in,” said Tomika Joyce, whose daughter is an incoming freshman. Joyce needed to recover a username and reset a password in order to complete the online form. She left with some relief: “At this point, I think I’m going to get through.”

The effort to help

The college hired summer workers, including local high school guidance counselors, to run the center. Michael Poll, vice president of enrollment management, credits the hands-on help with boosting FAFSA completion rates, though they still lag. Last year around this time, Georgia Gwinnett had received just over 14,200 financial aid applications. This year, the number is down by roughly 1,700.

“We have to be one-on-one with them. We have to be able to sit with them and actually fill the form out, which is what we are doing,” Poll said.

Sol Cortes, 26, stopped by Wednesday to check on the status of her FAFSA. She started working on the application around March and discovered she needed to submit missing tax information. A month ago, she was “stressing out,” but left the center feeling “way more relieved” that her application will be processed in time for fall classes.

Such uncertainty has made it more difficult to predict student counts. Experts nationally anticipate some declines this fall. Poll believes Georgia Gwinnett’s enrollment would be in line to grow by 5%-7%, but because of FAFSA troubles, he’s projecting a more conservative 3%-5% increase. The college will be as flexible as possible to work with students whose financial aid application remains in flux after the July deadline.

Kennesaw State University cautioned that financial aid delays may cause students to change their college plans at the last minute and has made forecasting fall enrollment “very difficult.”

At Georgia Tech, the overall FAFSA completion rate actually inched up this year. But Paul Kohn, vice provost for enrollment management, remains worried about specific pockets of students as the highly ranked school tries to expand access to more Georgians.

The school has strived in recent years to enroll more first-year students with Pell Grants, but for the upcoming year, Kohn is “concerned that we are not on track for similar gains.” He’s also watching the Tech Promise program, which helps students whose families earn less than $55,000 a year graduate without debt. It has a goal of boosting the cohort size to 75 students next year, but so far has 62.

FAFSA snags have created “paralysis” for some students unable to correct errors, Kohn said. The hurdles are especially hard to overcome for those whose parents aren’t familiar with the application or who have less access to counseling services. Kohn said Georgia Tech is working “feverishly” to assist impacted students.

“It’s critical that we address their needs now because they are not going to raise their hand next year if I lose them now,” he said.

Roughly half of students within the Technical College System of Georgia are eligible for the Pell Grant. So far this year, the system’s 22 schools have processed about 60,000 FAFSA records, said Ray Perren, deputy commissioner for technical education.

“The entire year last year, we processed about 165,000,” he said. “So we’ve still got a lot of room to make up.”

There’s still time, he said, because many students wait until the summer to complete the form, and technical colleges can admit students for fall classes into July or even later.

Weathering the disruption

Other schools also are finding ways to cope. Jodi Johnson, who oversees enrollment management at Dalton State College, said the school is about two weeks behind where it would normally be with processing financial aid applications. Students have until July 1 to complete the FAFSA to be guaranteed that their financial aid will be processed before the first day of class.

Several private schools in Georgia are also working to assist students.

Spelman College said efforts to communicate with students throughout the year have helped it stay on track. Nine out of 10 of incoming first-year and transfer students have completed a financial aid application, as well as 82% of returning students.

Mercer University was fortunate to gain access to federal records so it could start making financial aid awards to students in mid-March, ahead of many Georgia schools, said Maria Hammett, associative vice president for student financial planning. That, combined with greater outreach to families, helped calm any panic, she said.

Still, Mercer is down about 13% in FAFSA completions, with returning and nontraditional students being slower to finish.

Schools also can’t yet submit corrections to the U.S. Department of Education to reflect when a student’s income or family situation has changed due to a job loss, divorce or other life update. Hammett said roughly 20% of Mercer’s financial aid applications need some kind of adjustment. Getting it fixed is a big deal for students seeking more funding to cover college costs.

“It’s June, and I still can’t do a correction form to let them know how it will turn out,” she said.

Achieve Atlanta, which provides need-based awards to Atlanta Public Schools students, requires students to submit a FAFSA to receive a scholarship. Completion rates are running 8-10 percentage points behind last year, a gap the organization has worked to close by targeting students who need extra support. Achieve Atlanta extended its scholarship deadline by nearly two months to July 29 to give students in a vulnerable position more time.

A number of their scholarship recipients are still reviewing financial aid packages from colleges, said Korynn Schooley, vice president of college access.

“That is the thing they need to help them determine ... often where they will go, but for many students, if they will go,” she said.

A student’s resilience

For Aydan Morales, financial aid frustrations are high.

He graduated a few weeks ago from North Atlanta High School and enrolled in a summer program at Georgia State University. He’s struggled for months to complete the FAFSA, running into problems that likely stem from a discrepancy in how his last name is recorded.

Aydan Morales, a 2024 graduate of North Atlanta High School, said he was still trying to file his federal financial aid application. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

He began calling a customer support number in March to no avail. He dialed on his way to school and in between classes but could only reach an automated voicemail.

Advisers at OneGoal are also coaching Morales through the process. He’ll be the first in his family to go to college.

“I’m very resilient. My education is what I prioritize the most behind my spiritual beliefs,” he said. “I just want to be able to go to college with the peace of mind that I can have financial aid, that I can have some help, because that’s my main roadblock when it comes to me attending college.”

Morales has also sent emails and consulted with the financial aid office at Georgia State. The school is working with him to ensure he doesn’t get dropped from classes before the mess gets untangled.

“My biggest concern is that I didn’t want to go into college and basically get told, ‘Hey, you can’t come to college anymore because of something that you have no control over,’” he said.

By the numbers: FAFSA and Georgia

41.5 — the percentage of the high school class of 2024 in Georgia who have completed the FAFSA as of May 31

53,248 — the number of FAFSA completions in Georgia

14.5 — the percentage decline of Georgians who’ve completed the FAFSA compared to the prior academic year

58 — the percentage of Atlanta Public Schools high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA

Source: National College Attainment Network.