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Getting to College: FAFSA Challenges for First-Gen Students

The hurdles faced by first-generation college students as they make their way through the financial aid process — and how to help them overcome the barriers
FAFSA conceptual illustration

For many first-generation college students, the dream of pursuing a college degree is often accompanied by financial uncertainty and adversities that keep it as just a dream. The faulty rollout of a new, more simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form may only keep this student population from even trying.

“The intent of simplifying it and making it a "Better FAFSA" was actually very much right-footed to really make sure that it can go to the intent of providing and expanding more access to young people who would be least likely to go to college, largely because they also think that they can't pay for it,” says Heather Wathington, the CEO of iMentor. “So the challenge then is that something that was created to ameliorate a problem is stuck, so then you have young people that remain stuck. They aren't necessarily able to provide the financial information that they need, and they're discouraged about going.”

Though Wathington acknowledges that the FAFSA changes were intended and may eventually help first generation college goers, but the delays, technical glitches, and math mistakes of the new FAFSA have only added a layer of adversity.

“For the seniors, my heart aches for them because it's not feeling like they're going to college,” Wathington says. “And as we're trying to build a college going identity, particularly with young people who might be on the fence about whether they belong, whether they should go, whether they can pay for it, all the ‘whethers.’ We want to be able to make it feel possible, and this kind of serves to stymie them a bit.”

How can we make college feel more accessible to these student populations? What is the role of mentors in not only getting students to apply to college but also matriculating to college? In this episode, we explore the hurdles faced by these individuals and explore strategies to help them overcome the barriers to accessing higher education.


JILL ANDERSON: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Heather Wathington worries the challenging rollout of a simplified FAFSA means many first-generation, low-income students may never make it to college. She's a researcher and college access advocate who leads iMentor, an organization focused on getting first-gen students to college. The new FAFSA was supposed to make financial aid easier, but many argue the delays and technical glitches have only made it harder. Early data shows significant declines in students filing FAFSA this year. Financial aid makes it possible for first-generation and low-income students to make college a reality.

Wathington says mentors are trying to keep the student population from getting discouraged, but it's been difficult. I asked Wathington how the FAFSA changes will uniquely impact low-income students.

Heather Wathington
Heather Wathington

HEATHER WATHINGTON: When we think about FAFSA and created, I think, in the nineties to really expand student access and come up with a way in which to get more information about a student's financial picture to then understand what a family could actually contribute to paying for college. It was a rather unwieldy document. So 108 questions, a lot of questions that people may have thought were intrusive or invasive, but difficult. Difficult to fill out, difficult for first-generation students, low-income students often to get access to their parents' information or their guardian's information in a complete way to actually complete FAFSA.

So I think the intent of simplifying it and making it Better FAFSA was actually very much right-footed to really make sure that it can go to the intent of providing and expanding more access to young people who would be least likely to go to college, largely because they also think that they can't pay for it. So what the challenge then is that something that was created to ameliorate a problem is stuck. So then you have young people that remain stuck. They aren't necessarily able to provide the financial information that they need, and they're discouraged about going.

If they're on the fence about whether I should go or this delay and this challenge doesn't inspire them and it further makes college unaffordable. The big takeaway is without FAFSA going to college is just not a realistic venture for so many students. So until that FAFSA is completed and they know exactly what their contribution is and they understand how a college or university is using that information, they're not going to college. And so I think that that is really how it impacts those students differently because it becomes a wish and not a plan.

JILL ANDERSON: I know by the time this podcast comes out, things could significantly change, but I was trying to get an idea of just how significant a difference it is from this past year to this year and the National College Attainment Network keep tracking some magical way of how many folks are applying and how many are not. And from what I understand, only about 20-29% of students have actually filed FAFSA at the beginning of this month, but there are dips as much as 40% fewer students of color, high minority students who are applying. What are you hearing from students on the ground?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: I think a range of things And certainly they know that iMentor as an organization is really trying to help them get through the process. So if they're not motivated to go through the process, it's unclear if we're getting answers that match their aspirations. But I would say many of them are frustrated with being able to complete their information. We actually have a lot of students who are not able to get on the site and through the site to actually submit their FAFSA application. So a fair amount of frustration. We often try to help during the day. The site seems to be better in the evenings.

So we're really trying to encourage young people to complete it in the evenings where it seems like there's less traffic and you're actually able to get your document completed and your information entered. I think we're also trying to say that this is designed to make it easier. So while it's tough right now, and this is another hoop through this entire process of going to college, we'll sort of get through this. And so I think students are generally sort of frustrated, but I think the real frustration starts to set in, and I think we're starting to see this with each passing day as the acceptances come in.

Because then they start going, "Okay, but I don't know what I can do with this." It almost undermines their excitement about getting in and going, because they either haven't completed the FAFSA, they're stuck getting it in, or they just submitted it so they know that this acceptance letter isn't really telling them yet what they can do with this college acceptance that they have.

JILL ANDERSON: What is it like for you, someone who works in college access, you've been committed to that in your career. And as you already noted, these FAFSA changes were intended to be promising for students from marginalized backgrounds. It was supposed to really help make this sort of process a little bit easier, and now you're witnessing how this has played out in real time. What's that like for you?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Obviously disappointing, particularly because when people started to take very seriously, a lot of the policy researchers who were saying you can really expand access by changing FAFSA, and they took that seriously. And I know some of those scholars really well, a lot of excitement. So my background I think as a researcher, like, "Oh, policymakers are listening to us. This is great. We're sort of making some traction here." So real excitement and then knowing it's a lot for government to implement. So I think that is the piece where I am sympathetic to what it means to take something as enormous as FAFSA and actually be able to get it right for millions of students.

And there are delays. It was supposed to be two years ago and then another year delay was taken and then another year. So I think with the delays, there was high expectation that this could roll out and roll out well because otherwise we delayed it to get it to the point where it would actually be able to work for students. So to be in this place feels tough, and to watch the students go through it. I have every confidence that by next year, many of the things will be resolved and it'll be much easier for next year's students, this year's juniors.

But for the seniors, my heart aches for them because it's not feeling like they're going to college. And as we're trying to build a college going identity, particularly with young people who might be on the fence about whether they belong, whether they should go, whether they can pay for it, all the whethers. We want to be able to make it feel possible, and this kind of serves to stymie them a bit.

JILL ANDERSON: How are you handling that idea of making it still feel possible given the current status of things?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Celebrating their acceptances, and then pointing out all of the institutions that are giving them more time to make a decision. And letting them know that we will be with them, working with them to walk through all their options and all of their possibilities and their decisions. So I think just trying to say where there has been less time, there'll be a bit more time and still more support to help you and your family land on what is the best option and the best school for you to attend.

JILL ANDERSON: Will this deter a lot of this population from going to college altogether?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Absolutely. Across all the schools that we work with, about 70% of our students actually enroll immediately after college, and then it's a slightly larger percent that actually enroll within 18 months of their high school graduation. So thrilled with that, but we want to get that 70% number higher, and we're post secondary in focus and purpose. We don't necessarily say that kids have to go to college, but we want them to get a post-secondary credential beyond high school. And we say that's important and that's critical.

So we're always trying to push that number up in any way possible and are just worried that many of the students that tell us, "Well, I'm just going to work in my family business, or I'm just going to get a job. It what's best for my family, or I just don't see myself going to college, or I'm never interested in college. I don't like school." So all of those young people that we have supported to still have a post-secondary plan in case they change their mind. And we often say, "We have lots of students that change their mind, so do this plan. Let's walk through this, apply to schools, go through FAFSA, see where you're accepted."

And then you've got a plan so that if anything changes and you decide, "Hey, maybe I'm not interested in this job." You've got a college acceptance and a financial aid later that tells you that you've got a spot. So I think it's those students that we think and worry about losing, and we have fewer students that will immediately enroll because it won't seem possible. I think we also worry about the students that actually might not get any response back from either FAFSA or the institution and things get hung up over the summer.

And then even if they're college intending, who's walking with them through a process and do they just give up in frustration, some aspect of their financial aid is missing. There's some piece that's happening between the institution and they're making a commitment and making a decision. If any of the steps are missed and a student is lost, are we able to support that student? We're typically able to do that in June. So we're just worried that things get so delayed that even our students who are college intending are just frustrated and say, "I'm just not going to do it."

JILL ANDERSON: Right. Do you have data or does the data exist showing, especially for this population that every month or a year that starts to go by, it gets harder for them to actually go to college or they just move on with their lives?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: I would say iMentor doesn't have specific data. I would say iMentor has data that shows more of our students who say that they're going to college actually end up going ultimately within 18 months. They will ultimately enroll. Students who told us they weren't going, we often find about 10% enter in college sometime within that 18 month period. What we do know is that when students delay entry more than that, say gap year, where gaps years tend to be purposeful. So we try to make them purposeful if students are going to take a gap year, and we do encourage that for kids that, "I want to delay it for a year."

Let's make it a gap year so that it's very intentional, and then you can still make a plan to enter. Just becomes harder and harder because young adults become adults and they start taking on adult responsibilities. So longer-term relationships and childbearing and many different things start to come on, and it becomes much more difficult than to earn that degree that you might want at that time or that you may have wanted at 18 or 19. And there's some really clear data that shows that 18 or 19 folks have more life options available to them. At least they view it in that way. And so college ends up being a very good first step if they're ready.

JILL ANDERSON: We know FAFSA is a big piece of the roadblock to getting kids into college. What are some of the other things that make accessing colleges so challenging for this population?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Certainly there are different enrollment priorities for different colleges and universities. So it is trying to then figure out, "What do I want to do if I'm a student, if I'm a young person? What do I want to do and what do I think I want to major in?" So just where they want to focus their energy always becomes a question. And we're often saying it's fine if you're undecided, but there's certainly that piece of trying to get students to identify their interest. And we know that students who enter in college undecided or stay in that undecided space and don't declare a major often are less likely to finish.

So it becomes really important to get them really thinking about their career interest and starting with that interest to lead them into post-secondary education so that they are planting their feet in an area. That would be one. The second I would say is just fit. An institution that speaks to a student's needs, has resources that supports that student. It's welcoming so that student feels like this is a place that wants me here and sees that I have potential. So that sense of belonging and that fit becomes really important as a way in which to connect students. If students all too often end up on college campuses and they go, "Okay, this isn't me.

I don't belong here. I don't fit." They don't see themselves in the profile of either young people or they don't see themselves at a place where they're supported. Often they have engagements with professors and others that make them second guess if that's a place where they should be. And then for low-income students and first gen students, we also know that there's the imposter syndrome. "No one in my family has ever been to college, so perhaps I shouldn't go either. I don't belong."

So it's that college going identity that becomes really important for first generation students to see themselves as a student and as a student that is going to complete their educational degree, whatever that might be, so that they can pursue that career interest. So those are individual things. And then colleges make all of those things challenging by what they offer, how they interact and engage young people, how much aid they're going to give them and what resources they have to offer. So sometimes they can be a really dizzying menu of like, "Here are my interests. How do I match that with a college and what they're telling me?" And that makes it sometimes I think too many choices, too many options without enough clarity that makes the entire process ambiguous.

JILL ANDERSON: Can you talk a little bit about mentors and the role that they play in helping students navigate that entire college world and FAFSA?

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Our mentors are fabulous. A real shout out to them because they volunteer their time to really kind of pair with a young person. So mentors help in a lot of ways. One, just sharing their own individual story, even if they're a continuing generation student, it gives a student, a person to sort of say, "Okay, this person navigated the process so I can too." So that's just one level. It's really important. I would say the second piece is our mentors really do coach and advise. Say, "Okay, here are your options. What do you think makes sense? What are you interested in?"

And so we work with our mentors to ask a lot of questions, really serve as an interlocutor to the student and an inquisitor around helping them sort through and come to their own conclusions about some of the ways in which they're making decisions. In addition to asking questions, can you also work with that young person to sort of divine their options? We work with mentors, our staff work with mentors and with students to say, "Okay, this student applied to four colleges. They have different financial aid packages with the four colleges.

Let's break each down in terms of understanding how much grant, how much scholarship and how much loan is a part of that process, and what seems to make sense for you and your family. So mentors are really helpful with helping students divine through all of that noise. And then deciding, ultimately helping them make that decision that they feel really good about. Some students are, "I definitely want to go to this college." We have mentors that take students to visit colleges and just to make sure that that's in fact where they want to go. So our mentors provide a lot of support.

I would say, look at essays. So everything through the process from start to finish with coming up with a choice set of schools, looking at a major, working through essays in the application process, all the way to making a decision our mentors support with. And then we ask our mentors to work transitioning that young person into post-secondary. So being with them during the summer, staying in touch with them, making sure that they have what they need so that they actually matriculate. And that's where we see a really, really big gain where our mentors are staying in touch with their students over that summer.

Some help them move in and are part of the move in crew. Really helping that student make sure that they matriculate and answering those first and early questions that happen in that first year around what is happening here and making that transition from high school to college. This is what the college expectations are. I did it. You can do it too. Here's where this might be a little different than high school. Have you found your tribe? Do you have friends and people that you feel comfortable that you're getting to know? Do you have people that you can ask for help?

You have me as your mentor, but there are people on the college campus in financial aid or in health services or in the writing center, in the tutoring center that can help you with your work as you're working through whatever resources you need. So our mentors path our students through in lots of ways.

JILL ANDERSON: That's amazing. It's not just getting in, which I think we tend to focus a lot on. It's actually going there and getting through it, which are all different pieces of the experience, pieces of the puzzle.


JILL ANDERSON: Beyond the steps that we've seen the Department of Education take, what ideas do you have that would maybe make FAFSA easier for first-gen, students of color, low-income students?

Heather Wathington: As I understand what Better FAFSA has become, I think they've taken some major steps forward. Just even bringing the tax information and making sure that that's embedded so that students aren't having to chase down tax information and then changing the EFC. I think there are some big leaps that are going to make this process so much better and so much easier for young people.

Time will tell once the tool is really operational and fully developed, and we can actually see how it's making a difference for young people. I think then we'll have a sense of what would be the next level thing that would make a difference.

I think at this point in time, the department can certainly continue to encourage young people to complete the FAFSA. I think the Department of Education is doing that, really trying to say, "Hey, we know this is bumpy. Stick with it. It's going to ultimately make things better, particularly because this is just one point in your journey. If you're getting a two-year or a four-year degree, you'll have this process again that hopefully will be much smoother." So I think getting the information and the word out there about sticking with it, but that there's more to come.

This is something that has to happen annually, so we will get the kinks out so that you ultimately get the financial aid and the support you need. I think also not asking people to just not walk away. There's Pell Grant money and so much federal support that really makes college affordable for young people that are attending certain schools and walking away is actually walking away from a real opportunity to get a great education.

JILL ANDERSON: Well, thank you so much, Heather.

HEATHER WATHINGTON: Thanks for having me.

JILL ANDERSON: Heather Wathington is CEO of iMentor. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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