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How FAFSA complications are disproportionately affecting Black students


It's the time of year many students are starting to look ahead to college. And for a lot of them, that means applying for federal student loans, a form known as FAFSA. But the process is a mess this year, with lots of glitches, delays, and miscalculations, all of which is causing major headaches for the nearly 18 million people who apply for FAFSA every year. This is especially the case for Black students because, according to the Department of Education, 70-90% of them rely on FAFSA to go to college. So what options are available to these students? Bryan J. Cook is the director of higher education policy at the Urban Institute Center on Education Data and Policy. He joins us now. Welcome to the show.

BRYAN J COOK: Thank you very much.

RASCOE: Is there any help out there for Black and low-income students if their applications aren't processed in time or they won't get enough aid?

COOK: Well, unfortunately, there aren't a lot of options when it comes to the FAFSA form. A lot of aid programs rely on information on the FAFSA to make decisions about aid eligibility for students.

RASCOE: So what are students doing if they don't get student aid in time? Are they deferring until 2025?

COOK: Well, that's the big unknown, and one of the big fears is that particularly for low-income students, who may have already been on the fence about whether or not they can afford college, may just opt out altogether. They potentially could defer for a year, but we know that when students, particularly low-income students, delay entry to post-secondary education, that tends to often be permanent.

RASCOE: We also know the overall number of applicants has gone down by at least a quarter. Like, are students giving up? What's happening here?

COOK: That's one of the big questions that I think we're going to be trying to figure out for quite some time is whether or not the decline that we've seen in applications are students who have completely opted out or if there are just delays in getting their applications processed and that, you know, at the end of this cycle, we'll see a closing of that gap between the applications that were submitted in 2023 versus those that were submitted this year. But right now, again, the big fear is that for a lot of those declines, that they're students who have just opted out for this year, and, of course, the larger fear is that those are disproportionately low-income students and students of color.

RASCOE: Well, what kind of impact could this have on young people, young, Black people in the workforce?

COOK: Right. Increasingly, some sort of post-secondary credential is necessary to acquire what are considered good-quality jobs. Having an issue with the FAFSA will certainly have impacts on what the workforce looks like. And let's not forget, we're overlaying this year's issues around the FAFSA with last year's Supreme Court decision regarding the use of race in college admissions.

RASCOE: And that's the Supreme Court decision that effectively ended race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities. What are the other options? If your family can't help financially, are they able to apply for other types of loans or lines of credit?

COOK: Yeah. I mean, there's always the private sector for loans. Unlike the federal aid program, those are going to be subject to a lot of your standard credit checks, and they're not as generous in terms of their repayment options. If a student or their parents owns a home, there may be the option for taking out equity in the home in order to finance. And then there's just the paying out of pocket, particularly for students who may be looking at a community college. There's always that option.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, some schools are extending FAFSA deadlines for students. Do we know if enough schools are doing this to make a difference?

COOK: It's hard to tell because we don't have an accurate count. The challenge for some schools that are enrollment dependent - their budgets are largely tied to them knowing how many students are enrolling. They can only afford to push back their deadlines so long before it starts to have significant budgetary implications for them.

RASCOE: The cost of education is rising at both private and state schools. Is FAFSA keeping up with these increases?

COOK: Well, the Pell Grant does not have the same purchasing power today that it did 20, 30 years ago. It covers a much smaller portion of not just tuition and fees but total cost of attendance, nontuition expenses, which, for public four-year institutions, is now about 60% of the cost - so books, housing, food, transportation, for students who are parents, child care. All of those things in combination now are really creating the affordability barrier for low-income students, less so the tuition and fees.

RASCOE: Well, some lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Education last week expressing concern that similar issues will plague FAFSA next year. What kind of impact would two years of these glitches have?

COOK: Two years would be devastating in terms of issues of equitable access to post-secondary education. I think that a lot of us in higher education policy, we're trying to understand the implications of just the Supreme Court decision alone. It's hard to tease out, whatever numbers we see this fall, how much of that was FAFSA, how much of that was Supreme Court. And if FAFSA bleeds over again to next year, we'll be dealing with the exact same issue.

RASCOE: That's Bryan J. Cook, director of higher education policy at the Urban Institute Center on Education Data and Policy. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

COOK: My pleasure.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.