Slow rollout of new FAFSA application delays financial aid offers for Newark students

A group of high school students walk around the outside of the school building after classes are dismissed.
In New Jersey, several colleges and universities were forced to extend their enrollment deadlines to June 1 after the Better FAFSA form opened at the end of December 2023. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

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Chanice Minnott knew she wanted to go to Syracuse University after going on a tour during her junior year of high school.

The senior at North Star Academy’s Lincoln Park High School had always dreamed of going to college outside of New Jersey and envisioned the experience she would have at a school like Syracuse in upstate New York. After being rejected on the first try, Minnott was finally accepted in January. She felt a sense of relief after fearing she would miss out on the experience she had imagined.

But nearly four months after receiving her acceptance letter, Minnott still hasn’t gotten her financial aid package. The delay could impact her decision to attend Syracuse next fall.

“I’m checking my portal every day hoping that something will pop up, but there’s nothing else I can do but just wait,” Minnott said.

Minnot is one of hundreds of Newark students who are anxiously waiting on financial aid offers after the botched rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

An updated application was supposed to make it easier for students across the country to receive their financial aid but the release was delayed. Nationwide, students have experienced trouble submitting the form and entering tax information, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The new form also presented challenges to immigrant families who didn’t have a Social Security number.

At Lincoln Park, students are experiencing long wait times to reach someone in the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office only to be hung up on, said Mark Stulberg, director of college counseling at the high school. The delays are the biggest problem in this year’s college admission process, he said.

“Typically at this point, all students would have financial aid packages from all their schools so their families can make informed decisions about where they’re going to go for college,” Stulberg said.

In New Jersey, several colleges and universities were forced to extend their enrollment deadlines to June 1 after the Better FAFSA form opened at the end of December 2023, months after the form’s typical release in October.

Students like Shamar Thompson, also a senior at Lincoln Park, said filling out the application was glitchy and he would often have to retype information into the form. Other times, he had trouble signing back into the application after it crashed on the FAFSA website.

Like Minnott, Thompson is also waiting to receive his financial aid offer from his top pick, Stockton University in southern New Jersey. He applied to 13 other schools but remembers the tears of joy he cried when he received his acceptance letter to Stockton.

Thompson also applied to Rowan University and received his financial aid package from the school. It’s his second choice, Thompson said, but he’s holding out on Stockton to get back to him.

“I’m feeling very nervous because I have to make a decision in a couple of weeks,” said Thompson last Friday. “And I’m also feeling extremely disappointed because it’s taken a long time for me to receive my aid and help from my college.”

If Rowan offers him more financial aid than Stockton, “it would impact my decision in a big way” because he doesn’t want to place a financial burden on his family, Thompson said. But he can’t make that decision until he finds out all his options.

Currently, about 45% of Lincoln Park seniors are enrolled in college compared to 80% around this time last year, Stulberg said. In Newark, roughly 57.2% of graduating seniors completed the Better FAFSA, above the state’s average of 45.7%, as of May 10 according to the National College Attainment Network FAFSA Tracker. Last year, the rate was 70.1%, a 12.9% difference from this year.

That rate drops to 41% for the total number of seniors in Newark who have completed the application as of May 20, per the New Jersey Children’s Foundation FAFSA Tracker.

In Newark Public Schools, students are required to complete the FAFSA form before they graduate. Students who choose to opt out of the requirement, have to complete an exemption form and meet with their parents and counselor to discuss plans after graduation, according to Nancy Deering, district spokesperson. As of May, 1,620 seniors have completed the district’s FAFSA requirement, Deering said in an email on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, the Children’s Foundation launched a FAFSA challenge between Newark and Camden to drum up excitement over completing the form. They are set to announce a winner on May 31 but so far, Camden trails behind Newark with a 35% completion rate. Other organizations such as the Newark Opportunity Youth Network and the Newark City of Learning Collaborative have hosted financial aid workshops and troubleshooted problems with families.

The New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority also offers help for students seeking tuition aid grants and support through the College Promise Initiative, which provides aid to students headed to community colleges and four-year universities. The Learning Collaborative also hosts information on available scholarships to students.

Despite the delays, Minnott says she is thankful for her counselors who’ve helped her try to contact Syracuse and federal officials to find answers to her financial aid offers. She plans to double major in psychology and neuroscience – hopefully, at Syracuse next fall.

Said Minnott: “It’s kind of like an endless cycle of just waiting.”

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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