Nylah Henry explores which colleges she might want to attend...

Nylah Henry explores which colleges she might want to attend during the college fair at Valley Stream Central High School, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. Credit: Jeff Bachner

The number of completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid submissions has fallen about 10% statewide from last year as delays and complications with the online application  plagued the rollout of what was supposed to be an easier form to complete.

The statewide average is 50.7%, according to The Education Trust-New York, a Manhattan-based nonprofit. And advocates are concerned that thousands of students have missed out on crucial financial aid that can make college more affordable and attainable. 

On Long Island, while the completion rate is slightly above the statewide average at 51%, that's more than 9% less than last year at this time. The federal government introduced a new application form this past school year.

The 2023-24 FAFSA application period closes June 30 and educators say students can still complete the form before then. The form for 2024-25 is now available.

EdTrust-NY has been tracking federal financial aid applications for the past six years and recently released the estimated percentage of high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA in 2023-24 as of May 31.

“While the better FAFSA was intended to simplify the process for students and families, the botched rollout has been a disaster,” said Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, executive director of EdTrust-NY. The application was plagued by delays, glitches and miscalculations, she said.

Completing the federal forms unlocks all kinds of federal student aid, including federal grants, work study and loans. Studies show that students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to go to college, and it’s especially critical for students from low-income backgrounds, students from immigrant households and first-generation students.

Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the form go to college directly after graduation, compared with 55% of seniors who don’t fill out the aid application, according to officials with the State University of New York system.

Failing to complete the form also could add to a student's cost burden at a time when expenses for higher education continue to climb.

“For example, a first-time undergraduate student going to a four-year college wouldn't get that unsubsidized student loan from the federal government. So they're more likely to have to take out private loans or something like that, which are just more expensive options that make college less affordable,” Benjamin-Gomez said.

According to an analysis by the National College Attainment Network, the high school class of 2023 left more than $4 billion in Pell Grants nationwide unclaimed by not completing the FAFSA. In New York State, nearly $226 million was left unclaimed. Top reasons students do not submit include a lack of awareness, they are not pursing college and the form is too complicated, according to the Network.

Gov. Kathy Hochul introduced legislation for the upcoming school year requiring universal FAFSA completion for graduating high school seniors in an effort to boost completion rates.

SUNY officials have been touring the state to raise awareness of FAFSA. This year, they delayed admissions and recently co-hosted an event with the Valley Stream Central High School District's graduating seniors to gather input.

Under FAFSA, students submit their families' income and other data to the federal government to calculate eligibility for aid. Colleges use this information to determine how much aid and grants to give to students. Students then can use that information to decide if they can afford the school. 

The application period typically opens in early October but was delayed for three months last year because of complications with the formula and the new online form. Colleges didn't receive a student’s information until mid-March. Schools used to receive this data in January, or even in December in some cases.

“When I heard there was a new FAFSA, I thought, 'OK, it will be simple,'” said Nylah Henry, 17, a senior at Valley Stream Central High School. She said her parents spent hours trying to rectify a glitch. “It was not easy — it was a bit disappointing,” she said.

Giancarlo Oliveri, 18, a senior at Valley Stream North High School, was able to eventually complete the form, but said the directions were unclear.

“You really had to go through trial and error,” he said.

On Long Island, 36% of school districts have a lower completion rate than the state average, according to EdTrust-NY. Among them is the Wyandanch district, which, according to the data, has a rate of less than 20%.

In a statement, Arlise Carson, interim superintendent of the Wyandanch School District, said they have been working with students.

“The district’s guidance counselors are proactively engaged in working with our scholars to ensure that the FAFSA applications are properly completed and submitted in a timely manner. In addition, the district has provided workshops for families to assist them with the completion of the FAFSA application,” Carlson said.

Sixty-four percent of local public districts have a completion rate at or above the state completion rate of 50.7%, with Shelter Island, Babylon and Sayville rounding out the top three districts as of May 31, according to EdTrust-NY.

The group recently recognized Academy Charter High School in Hempstead for the school's efforts in aiding students to complete the FAFSA. 

Despite the challenges on the form this year, Academy's Uniondale campus has an 89% completion rate and the Hempstead campus a 91% rate, school officials said.

The focus at the high schools, said Nicholas Stapleton, chief academic officer at Academy Charter, is that the students are not only prepared academically, but “we want to make sure that students have the financial means for college.”

To cope with the FAFSA delays, Adelphi University shortened the amount of time it took to get the information from the federal government to students from 35 to 14 days this year, said Shawana Singletary, assistant vice president and chief enrollment officer. Adelphi also sent out updates to incoming students and offered extensions if necessary. 

“While next year we shouldn't have as many hiccups, we have learned a lot about how to communicate with families and we were pushed to get creative,” she said. “We are actually up 2% from last year.”

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education have reported that they have “made significant progress to address known issues with the form.”

The department has processed more than 10 million of the forms and “will continue to work to make improvements to the FAFSA experience for students, families, and our other key partners,” according to a May news release from the agency.

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