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Some fear FAFSA frustrations could deter high schoolers from attending college

an aerial view of black and white graduation caps
Flickr/Ricky Romero
Fewer Ohio students have filled out the FAFSA compared to the same time last year.

Legislators have been working for years to streamline the process for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program.

But recent changes in the application process have caused major delays for students, parents, and colleges. As of March 29, far fewer Ohio graduating seniors had completed the FAFSA, compared to the progress of last year's graduating class at the same time last year.

Cassie Barlow, president of the Strategic Ohio Council for Higher Education, dug into the issue with WYSO.

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Cassie Barlow: Every single administration has tried to make it a little bit better, expand it a little bit more, connect potentially with more potential students, help more students. And realistically, over time, what has happened is just increasing debt and people taking on more and more debt through their quest for education.

So the current administration, in an effort to try to take on this debt, and of course Congress has been involved in this too, has basically said, "We've got to fix this, we've got to fix the debt issue, but we also have to fix the fact that we have such a small percentage of low income people who enroll using the Pell Grant. We've absolutely got to fix that problem."

And I will say, after spending 26 years in the central government, change is not quick or easy in the federal government and that should be news to no one.

The deadline has been pushed back for the FAFSA form change multiple times, but it obviously came at a really rough time as students were applying to schools, as schools were having to screen students.

So at this point, schools are kind of between a rock and a hard place in terms of timing and having to screen a lot more applicants in a much shorter time. So you know that is the current situation of what's going on.

The class of 2024 is catching up when it comes the percent of seniors completing the FAFSA, but students are still behind compared to high school seniors this time last year.

But in terms of what's driven the change is it's really about access at the end of the day. It's really about creating equal access for everyone and making the process easier, so you don't have to fill out a form that has safety questions. It's much shorter, much easier to fill out, and it changes the requirements to some extent for the Pell Grant eligibility.

It basically is supposed to increase the number of people who are eligible.

And the importance of filling out that form is more than just filling it out and getting potential federal funding. There's actually proof that shows that students who fill out a FAFSA are actually 63% more likely to enroll in post-secondary education, compared to those who do not file the FAFSA.

So to help people get across that secondary finish line, actually, just filling out that form is a huge, huge step. The change is focused on getting more people across that post-secondary finish line with more potential funding to go to school.

Jerry Kenney: Is that because once you get past that process of the FAFSA application, they take it more to heart that this is possible to continue their education?

Barlow: Yeah, I think it's about seeing the realm of the possible. And before you get through that process, you don't really know what the realm of the possible is, so that's part of it.

And like I said, this newest FAFSA really expands the eligibility for federal student aid and really is supposed to provide a streamlined experience.

So the estimate is that about 600,000 more students from low income backgrounds, nationally will be eligible to receive Pell Grants, due to the updates that are made within the calculation of the FAFSA form.

So at the end of the day, that's a great thing, that we can make higher education more accessible to our entire potential student body and not just to the part of the student body.

Kenney: So it sounds like you're saying there is some optimism among the institutions involved with your council?

Barlow: Yes, there definitely is. It will be good to see the playing field leveled, to be able to allow more students access to higher education.

Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.