The new FAFSA has been glitchy. Why Pierce County students are at particular risk | Opinion

A Puyallup High School senior waves to the crowd after receiving her diploma in this 2022 file photo. Cheyenne Boone

By Sen. T’wina Nobles and Dr. Tafona Ervin
Guest Opinion to The News Tribune

Students, the time to act is now. Complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and secure your future.

Completing the FAFSA unlocks a world of educational support, including federal grants, loans and work-study opportunities. For many low-income and first-generation college students, these resources can make the difference between attending college and being locked out of the system entirely.

But we know the process of filling out the FAFSA has long been burdensome. That’s why the federal government revamped the form — making it easier to complete.

However, the rollout of the new FAFSA has been bumpy for several reasons:

  • High school seniors didn’t get access to the new form until January, a three-month delay from the usual October release.
  • Initially, technical glitches plagued the new FAFSA’s release, though these issues have since improved.
  • A Department of Education oversight regarding inflation’s impact on tuition affordability created further confusion.
  • Additionally, delays in providing FAFSA information to colleges will hinder aid processing and notification.
  • Most recently, it appears students with parents who don’t have a social security number have been unable to access the new FAFSA form.

As a result, we’re seeing a sharp decline in FAFSA completion rates, with Washington currently sitting at 17% completion. The national average is 20%.

This represents a 49% decline in Washington’s FAFSA completion rate compared to this time last year. Continuing in this direction could result in dire post-secondary enrollment and retention rates across the state, diminishing opportunities for local graduates to secure high-earning wages for years to come.

Less than 30% of adults living in Pierce County have a college bachelor’s degree, according to the Employment Security Department. That means there are thousands of potential first-generation students here — if they attend college.

These students and their families often lack knowledge of the college experience and processes. Approximately 48% of first-generation college students rely on federal financial aid and support from school counselors to navigate the FAFSA. Consequently, administrative issues with the new FAFSA rollout stand to disproportionately affect first-generation students and our region as a whole.

As a state, we must ensure FAFSA completion isn’t the barrier for thousands of students from pursuing their top choice post-secondary plan.

While the simplified FAFSA may ease capacity issues in the long term, current students bear the brunt of navigating completion of the form as school and community navigators’ capacity is limited.

To help remove any barriers for students and their families, Washington’s public four-year institutions have extended the College Decision Day to June 1 for fall 2024.

Our message to students is clear: Do not set your dreams aside.

There is a place for you at colleges and universities across Washington. Do not wait. Do not put off your application. Now is the time to apply and complete your FAFSA.

In fact, there is more financial aid available than ever before this year, in the form of expanded federal Pell Grants.

The professionals at local institutions of higher education are working overtime, and you will get all of the financial aid you are entitled to.

Community members play a vital role in amplifying this message and encouraging individuals to take action. We need your help to get the word out now.

Together, we can ensure that every student has the opportunity to achieve their dreams through higher education.

Washington state Sen. T’wina Nobles is the chair of the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee and represents the 28th Legislative District.

Dr. Tafona Ervin is the executive director of Foundation for Tacoma Students.

This article originally appeared on February 29, 2024 in The News Tribune by Sen. T’wina Nobles and Dr. Tafona Ervin.