Glitch in financial aid form is keeping students with immigrant parents from applying for college grants

Glitch in financial aid form is keeping students with immigrant parents from applying for college grants
3 months 3 weeks 2 days ago Thursday, February 01 2024 Feb 1, 2024 February 01, 2024 4:28 PM February 01, 2024 in News - Immigration / Borderwall
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Diana Almaraz with her mother Guillermina in their home in Fort Worth on Jan. 28, 2024. Almaraz, 17, struggled to file her application for financial student aid because of a technical error that prevents parents without a Social Security number to verify their identity. Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune

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Cassy Rodriguez, 17, has always been a planner.

Well before high school, she knew she would be the first in her family to graduate from college. She would then get a degree in social work to become a counselor for teens in group homes. The Garland high school senior has already been accepted into Texas Woman’s University and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

But all that momentum came to a halt last month because of a glitch in the recently revamped Free Application for Federal Student Aid that is hurting immigrant families like hers. It prevents parents without a Social Security number from completing the form online.

Financial aid at some Texas schools will eventually run out, so students are advised to fill out the federal financial aid form as soon as possible. Many of Rodriguez’s classmates breezed through the process, but students like her are stuck waiting for a fix from the federal government.

“Everybody's over here no longer worried about their FAFSA, no longer worried about any more applications. Well, I’m over here worried,” Rodriguez said. “What if they don't send me a confirmation? What am I going to do? We really need the money for college.”

Financial aid experts worry the hurdles could discourage students from immigrant families from applying for financial aid at all, or put them off college altogether.

Rodriguez’s dad, who works as a server, can’t afford to pay the cost of college tuition without aid. Already this year, the Rodriguezes have had to pay off two funerals and a car accident. She thinks about this when she dials the FAFSA hotline, between classes and after she gets home from work.

FAFSA documents lie on the table of Diana Almaraz's Fort Worth home on Jan. 28, 2024.
FAFSA documents lie on Diana Almaraz's table, on Jan. 28, 2024. Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune

No fix in sight

Congress mandated changes in 2020 to make FAFSA easier to complete. But the rollout has been mired with problems. The new form launched at the end of December, three months later than usual, and families trying to complete it online have been running into glitches like the one keeping Rodriguez from completing the form.

[Here’s what Texans need to know about the new FAFSA to get aid for college]

Students from immigrant families have been getting stuck trying to add their parents as “contributors,” a new step that requires parents to verify their identity. There’s no option on the form right now that allows families to get verified without a Social Security number.

Students are advised to fill out the form by March, when colleges are expected to start putting together financial aid packages. Students can mail in a paper application but counselors are advising them to keep trying to fill it out online, too. It is unclear if all colleges will process or accept paper copies of the form. Since many schools offer aid on a first-come, first-serve basis, financial aid experts fear the problem might keep students like Rodriguez from accessing money.

Students in these circumstances “definitely feel targeted and forgotten about in this process,” said Larisa Kliman, the dean of college advising at the Texas-based Academic Success Program. “This is a big deal for them. This sets the stage for the rest of their lives and they have this major obstacle preventing them from moving forward.”

The U.S. Education Department did not respond to a request for comment about how soon it plans to fix the issue. The FAFSA issue alerts center indicates the department has been aware of this issue for at least four weeks.

Most times Rodriguez has dialed the Education Department’s FAFSA hotline, she has not gotten any help at all. When an agent has picked up, they have routinely put her on hold and hung up on her.

She got so desperate 10 days into calling that she collected her friends' cellphones one school day and rang the hotline from four phones at the same time. That was the only time she was able to speak to an agent about her case.

The FAFSA process has stirred up apprehension among students’ undocumented relatives over whether the information they're sharing could be used against them.

Under the revamped FAFSA system, federal tax information from the IRS is automatically transferred into the form. But families have to consent to the information-sharing. Parents from other countries are also expected to upload copies of passports.

“If you are one of those parents that has been living in the shadows, the idea that you put in identifying information — like ‘Did you live on this street?’ — is very scary,” said Sara Urquidez, the executive director of Academic Success Program. “They're obviously very much concerned about how this information is being tracked and used so I definitely could see and feel the nervousness.”

Diana Almaraz poses for a portrait with her mother, Guillermina on Jan. 28, 2024 outside of their home in Fort Worth, Texas.
Diana Almaraz with her mother, Guillermina, outside of their Fort Worth home. Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune

A deterrent to college

College access experts worry immigrant families struggling with the new FAFSA may give up on filling it out — or feel less inclined to enroll in college altogether.

Completing the FAFSA is one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior will go on to college, according to the National College Attainment Network. Seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately enroll in postsecondary education.

“I'm concerned about the messaging, how [students] might receive the information that they can't fill out the form,” said Shareea Woods, the director of the Texas College Access Network. “I just worry that students who are already feeling like they might not fit in or they might not be welcomed on a campus might see this as a sign that is not a fit for them.”

Woods provides FAFSA support to counselors at school districts and college access centers around the state. She stresses they need to be in constant communication with families affected by the glitch to prevent any students from falling through the cracks.

When families want to give up on the FAFSA, the college counselors at the Academic Success Program, which works out of more than 25 high schools across Texas, remind families they likely will not be able to afford to pay for college if they don't submit the form.

Diana Almaraz, a 17-year-old senior in Fort Worth whose mom does not have a Social Security number, was also having trouble submitting her application for federal aid. She had been stopping by her college advisor’s office every day in January to discuss her options before she got lucky and found a workaround. Deleting the form online and restarting it allowed her to add her mother’s information.

But she has been an exception; her solution, born out of sheer grit, hasn’t worked for most families in her situation. Almaraz worries about her peers from immigrant families who are still in limbo. Federal officials need to be resolving this issue with more urgency, she said.

“It looks like they're prioritizing other people. And we're a problem for later,” said Almaraz, who plans to get a degree in business management or join the military, a decision she’ll make based on how much financial aid she is offered. “Is it a work in progress or are you all just leaving us to the side?”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/01/fafsa-financial-aid-immigrant-students/.

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