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Can School Counselors Help Students with "FAFSA Fiasco"?

Support for low-income students and their families more crucial than ever during troubled federal financial aid rollout
FAFSA Illustration

Doreen Kelly-Carney, Ed.M.’93, fondly describes the school that she helped start 27 years ago as “The Little Engine That Could.” Tuition is free at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School (APR) in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and students apply through a lottery system. The majority of its learners are students of color, and many come from immigrant families. APR prides itself on offering students intensive and personalized help in every aspect of the college search, application, and financial aid process, beginning in ninth grade. It’s a level of support that resembles what you would find at a wealthy independent school. Seventy percent of its alumni go on to graduate from colleges and universities, some of whose prestigious insignia grace the school’s website.

APR is not a place where the co-directors of college placement, Kelly-Carney and Diane Scott, Ed.M.’97, typically struggle to get their students across the federal aid application finish line, but this year has been different. Why?

The pain points

The rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, used to determine a student’s eligibility for grants, scholarships, federal work study funds, and loans, has faced delays, mathematical errors, and technical difficulties that have put even the most seasoned and well-resourced school counselors, like Kelly-Carney and Scott, to the test this year. 

The glitchy December 30 debut versus the traditional October 1 start for the FAFSA “pushed everything back for us,” explains master's student Daniel Gutierrez, a college counseling intern at APR. Gutierrez and the college placement team found themselves doing a lot of financial aid work in January, at the same time as regular decision college application deadlines, which created “a double burden on students trying to get their college essays finished … and being worried about the FAFSA,” he says. 

At APR’s annual FAFSA assistance night for students and parents this year, gone was the usual air of calm and quiet confidence conveyed by the college counseling team. “That night was pretty chaotic,” admits Scott who has worked at the school since 2002, because the new process has been “so problematic.”

Around 30 percent fewer high school students have submitted the FAFSA compared with last year, as of March 22, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Challenges for first-generation and low-income students

Gutierrez says he encountered “totally weird” and unexpected issues when trying to help students and parents set up their FSA IDs — the first step in the new and supposedly simpler financial aid application process this year. Concerns included disappearing electronic signatures and cell phone numbers that showed up in the financial aid system as still belonging to their previous owners rather than APR students and families.  

The new inability of student and parent(s) to see each other's sections when completing the FAFSA has made the process “much more difficult from a counselor perspective,” as well, says Scott, especially when trying to assist immigrant and low-income families who work multiple jobs and have limited English proficiency and time.

The new FAFSA can draw more easily on federal tax data from the IRS — to make the transfer of tax information simpler — but has led to additional layers of security and challenges. For example, when Kelly-Carney tried to help a student and her mom by setting up a phone call in her office with a federal student aid helper, she says they were left on hold for almost an hour. When they finally got through, Kelly-Carney says she was asked to take the call off speakerphone so the representative could speak privately with the parent, but the mother struggled to understand the questions she was being asked.

Hiring more counselors 

This year’s unique challenges and obstacles underscore how crucial counselors can be in helping students and families access financial aid. In fact, research shows that when schools hire more school counselors, students receive significantly more aid dollars. However, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to school counselors, the ratios differ greatly from state to state and the national average is 385-to-1. APR has a senior class of just 61 students.

“You can’t get the results everybody wants with a [traditional] guidance counselor at a school with a big caseload, having to do course scheduling and social emotional counseling, lunch duty, college counseling, alternative pathways, because we know how many hours it takes per kid,” explains Kelly-Carney who once worked as an admissions officer at Harvard College and excels, with her colleagues, in helping talented students get into some of the most highly selective schools in the country including ones that meet full demonstrated financial need.

Preparing for "summer melt"

Some colleges and universities have extended their enrollment deadlines beyond May 1 this year to give prospective students more time to consider delayed financial aid packages. Kelly-Carney and Scott welcome the move but they also worry about unintended consequences, such as an adverse impact on summer melt — when college-bound students fail to turn up in the fall because they have been overwhelmed by the many administrative tasks they have to complete to get there. While the counselors hope to apply for extra funding so they can hire Gutierrez to work this summer to support APR students, they are concerned about the implications of enrollment delays nationally.

In the best of years there are “so many talented, talented students in our country that are totally falling through the cracks because they don’t have the knowledge and the support” they need to steer themselves successfully through the college and financial aid application process, explains Scott. This year has already been so much harder.  


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