- Sponsorship -

FAFSA delays leave college choices in limbo, students stressed

It's been a rocky rollout for the new financial aid form

Multiple districts — Janelly Sanchez-Puentes discovered her passion for engineering during a STEM class in eighth grade at Lee Middle School.

“We built a pinball machine out of cardboard, and learned how the spring worked and how to control a ball of a certain mass,” she said. 

Now a senior at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools’ Lee High School, Janelly said she’s been preparing to pursue her career goals at Michigan Technological University since that class. She kept track of every deadline for college applications, scholarship essays and her Free Application for Federal Student Aid form — more commonly known as FAFSA.  

Her biggest worry used to be whether she would be accepted to her dream school, Janelly said. But now, because of delays in receiving her FAFSA information, she fears not being able to attend college at all.

Delays, errors and hiccups following the rollout of the U.S. Department of Education’s new FAFSA form have left many students like Janelly unable to make college choices or know their financial aid status well into the spring of their senior year.

Lee High School senior Janelly Sanchez-Puentes faces uncertainty due to FAFSA delays

Janelly said her mom, a single parent of three, has been working two jobs to sustain her family.

“The FAFSA being delayed by three months set back the timeline of my senior year,” Janelly said in mid-April. “I haven’t been able to commit to any school as of now because of the delay of FAFSA, and due to my family finances, the outcome (of the financial aid) and scholarships influence my decision.”

“No parent should have to worry about whether they should let their child pursue a secondary education because of the finances,” Janelly said. “My mom and I have been extremely worried about my next step after high school. I know she’d do anything for her children, but we both know that no amount of jobs could help pay for college tuition.”

Delay After Delay Leads to Time Crunch

After applying to colleges and completing the FAFSA, high school seniors are normally notified in the beginning of the calendar year about their college financial award packages, including grants, scholarships, loans and work study.

“In a normal cycle, colleges and universities try to give (freshmen) award packages … in January, or some even in December,” said Michelle Rhodes, Grand Valley State University associate vice president for financial aid.

That leaves plenty of time for students to choose where they want to enroll with a clear financial picture in mind.

This year, however, many students are still waiting to learn what aid they qualified for. Rhodes said the Allendale-based university finally received students’ FAFSA information and was able to send out financial aid offers the week of April 22. (Colleges and universities use FAFSA data to determine financial aid offers.)

‘The overwhelming feeling of not knowing where I’m going next year, or if I’m even able to attend college, is consuming.’

— Lee High School senior Janelly Sanchez-Puentes

The goal of the new form was to expand eligibility for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, and provide a streamlined user experience. But problems began when the form was released on Jan. 1, three months later than the usual Oct. 1 date students can start applying. By that time in a regular year, many prospective college students already have received the financial information they need.

After those initial delays, errors in students’ financial information prolonged the process further and created a need for colleges and universities to double-check information on all FAFSAs to make sure aid offers were on target. 

The slow rollout and related uncertainty also created a decline in the number of high school seniors who have filled out the FAFSA nationwide.

Given the issues, some universities and colleges have extended their deadlines for students to make enrollment decisions, pushing back the May 1 deadline known as National Decision Day. Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Central Michigan University, among others, have extended deadlines to June 1.

GVSU operates on a rolling admission cycle, Rhodes said, meaning they review applications and release admission decisions continually, but the university has adjusted its scholarship deadlines. 

“We are always flexible and we continue to share that message with our students and families … that, ‘Yes, everything’s been delayed (in getting information) to make decisions, but we aren’t pressuring you to make a decision,’” she said.

Confusion, Frustration for Students and Staff

Kristine Wright, GRCC math tutor for Lee High School’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) program, has hosted four GEAR UP events this year to help families fill out their FAFSA. (The program started in 2018 with the goal of increasing college and career readiness of students in Wyoming, Kelloggsville, Godwin Heights and Godfrey-Lee school districts.) 

As of April 5, Lee had 24 families committed to filling out FAFSA applications with their students but only 14 were completed, she said. 

Since everything is done electronically, these families have encountered issues including entering digital signatures, connecting parent and student accounts within the system or leaving fields blank if a parent does not have a Social Security number. Some current students have even had their new account confused with an older sibling’s existing account.

 “I have not had one single student get their reward letter, even if their account displays the amount they are to receive, from either Godwin or Lee (high schools),” Wright said in mid-April. “They should have already received them so they can make their decisions … Our students are facing brick wall after brick wall.”

This includes students who are being considered for sports scholarships and other athletic opportunities; many of those athletes can’t think about that aspect because of the FAFSA issues, she said.  

“This is their moment, once in a lifetime, and they’ve worked hard to get here,” Wright said. “It’s so sad and so unfair. Time is not on their side.” 

Some seniors are already moving on to alternative plans, the tutor said.

“By not knowing what is happening with their FAFSA, for kids whose Plan B might have been GRCC, some of them are just going to go to GRCC,” she said. “Plan B is now plan A because there are too many unknowns.”

The issue is also preventing students from celebrating their senior year, Wright said. She’s noticed the usual chatter about prom and open houses has diminished. 

“It’s very hard for us as their navigators in the building,” Wright said. “I feel like I’ve been carrying the weight of the world for these kids and they’re losing their trust and they’re looking to us.” 

‘They Would Like to Make a Plan’

At Comstock Park High School, counselor Anna Stornant said the most frustrating part of the FAFSA delays has been hearing through the grapevine from college representatives about what was happening. They’ve had to piece together information to know what to expect and tell students, she said.

“There is a lot of anxiety with students of not having this information this close to graduation,” she said. “I am not a financial aid expert, but my job is to be a bridge and connect students with the resources in the next step, and it is hard to do this right now.”

Stornant said colleges have been flexible and very good about answering questions regarding enrollment fees and extensions. “It is tough for them, too, as they would like to make a plan for their next freshman class,” the counselor said.

Comstock Park’s Decision Day — an event devoted to celebrating post-secondary plans and kicking off pre-graduation activities — had lower participation this year, Stornant said, because students were not sure where they were going. (Typically, about 60% of the school’s graduating class will pursue post-secondary education or trade school.)

‘I am not a financial aid expert, but my job is to … connect students with the resources in the next step, and it is hard to do this right now.’

— Comstock Park counselor Anna Stornant

But at Godwin High School’s Decision Day event many students had no hesitation in announcing their college of choice, even though they didn’t have FAFSA information in hand.

Senior Aaron Montoyia, heading to the University of Michigan this fall, qualified for UM’s Go Blue Guarantee that will pay tuition and mandatory university fees for up to four years, so FAFSA was not a concern for him, he said.

A FAFSA aid package was also not an immediate concern for senior Henry Lopez-Pinedo, who received an athletic scholarship to play soccer at Davenport University.  

“I have been focusing on scholarships because there are so many,” said Henry, who is still waiting to hear about his FAFSA application. “With all the scholarships, I should be able to make it work.”

Senior Jesus Loeza, who plans to attend GVSU, was not able to complete the FAFSA because his parents do not have Social Security numbers — but, he said, “I have some scholarship money, so I should be OK.”

An ‘Overwhelming’ Situation

In the long run, GVSU’s Rhodes expects that the simplified FAFSA will benefit students overall. It’s quicker to fill out and increases eligibility for aid, she said.

“Big picture, strategically, (the DOE has) done the right thing. The rollout was just not done as well as it should have been … I do think, moving forward for students and families, it is going to be better. More students in theory will get a Pell Grant, so I think that will be awesome.”

Godwin Heights students hold signs showing which college they plan to attend in the fall

In the meantime, Godfrey-Lee’s Janelly has spent hours on the phone with FAFSA support, but only gets directed from one person to another trying to find a solution. 

“The overwhelming feeling of not knowing where I’m going next year, or if I’m even able to attend college, is consuming.” she said. “It’s something I’ve lost sleep over and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. 

“Instead of enjoying my last month of high school and about what dress I should get for my senior prom, I stress over whether I will be able to follow my dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer at Michigan Technological University.”

Reporters Erin Albanese and Joanne Bailey-Boorsma contributed to this story.

Read more: 
Future health care pros sample multiple career focuses
Educators and business leaders team up to help build school-to-work pipeline

- Sponsorship -
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU