Financial Aid Changes Create ‘New Levels Of Frustration’ For Hawaii Students

Counselors are concerned that fewer high school seniors may apply for college aid this year because of problems with the federal system.

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Recent revisions to a federal financial aid form promise to significantly increase the number of students in Hawaii who get help paying for college, but the effort could backfire this year because of issues with the rollout.

The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which has been streamlined to be shorter and easier to complete, opened three months later than usual. Even now, the online form remains open only intermittently. The challenges could impact when colleges, including the University of Hawaii, send out financial aid offers. 

“On paper, it’s going to be a really good thing,” said Frank Green, a financial aid outreach specialist at the University of Hawaii West Oahu. “It’s just really frustrating because it doesn’t work.” 

In 2021, Hawaii students left $12 million in federal grants for college on the table by choosing not to complete the FAFSA.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that roughly 1,880 additional Hawaii students could be eligible for federal grants under the “better FAFSA.” The simplified form automatically inputs applicants’ tax return information, saving families from manually filling out the information themselves. 

Last school year, 56% of Hawaii seniors completed the FAFSA — far short of the state’s pre-pandemic goal of getting 90% of students to submit the form. 

Some students don’t fill out the FAFSA simply because they don’t plan on attending college. But others leave the FAFSA untouched because they’re confused by the application or automatically assume they can’t afford a college education, said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director at HawaiiKidsCAN.

“It blows their minds, what they’re missing out on,” Sun-Miyashiro said, adding that he believes more students would consider higher education if they completed the FAFSA and saw how much aid they could receive. 

A Possible Decline in Applications

Students may not complete the FAFSA for a number of reasons, said Gus Cobb-Adams, a college application and transition specialist for Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. Students from low-income families may prioritize working after high school. Since the pandemic, more graduates have also been taking gap years before entering college, he added. 

But the FAFSA can help students better understand what options they might be able to pursue after graduation. For example, Cobb-Adams said, low-income students who complete the FAFSA could receive over $7,000 in federal grants, which could easily cover the costs of tuition and books at a local community college. 

There are currently 13 states that require high school seniors to complete the FAFSA. While students can also submit an opt-out form, the laws work as a “light nudge” in encouraging students to consider their options for attending and financing college, said Peter Granville, a fellow at The Century Foundation. 

When California’s FAFSA requirement took effect last academic year, it resulted in an outpouring of additional support for families struggling with the application, said Shelveen Ratnam, the communications and public affairs coordinator at the California Student Aid Commission. The FAFSA completion rate for the class of 2023 in California hit 74%, Ratnam added — up 6% from the previous year. 

As current high school seniors navigate a new FAFSA application and face a shortened timeline for completing the form, Ratnam said he’s optimistic that support systems created last year will prevent California’s completion rates from declining. 

In 2021, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz introduced a bill that would have made the FAFSA a graduation requirement by the 2023-24 school year. The bill did not pass. 

Cobb-Adams said he believes all Hawaii seniors should complete the FAFSA. But he said making it a state law could put an additional strain on counselors who are already stretched thin. 

At Kohala High School on the Big Island, seniors are required to submit a FAFSA or complete a worksheet showing their basic knowledge of the application, said school counselor Erin Henderson. She attributes this requirement, in addition to the school’s popular financial aid nights, to Kohala High’s FAFSA completion rate of 68%, the sixth highest in the state last year. 

Even with these supports in place, Henderson added, she’s worried the delayed release of the FAFSA could reduce the number of students submitting the form this year. The intermittent availability of the online form, combined with its late release, may frustrate some students to the point of giving up, Henderson said. 

“I hope that it won’t result in a reduction, but I do fear that it might,” Henderson said. 

College Uncertainties 

Even if students complete the FAFSA this year, many can expect delays in receiving their financial aid packages, which help families understand how much they will pay for a given college. 

Many students won’t receive their financial aid packages until March or April, Green said. In years when the FAFSA was released on time, colleges began sending out packages in early February. 

This year, Green added, some students may need to make a decision for the fall without receiving financial aid offers from all of their colleges. 

“They may very well be in a position where they’re going to have to make the call without the numbers,” Green said. 

These delays could ultimately affect Hawaii’s college-going rates, Cobb-Adams said. If seniors, especially those who are low-income, are still waiting for financial aid packages in the spring, they may prioritize other pathways like working or joining the military, he added. 

For smaller schools, like Chaminade University, recent changes to the FAFSA may have less of an impact on their abilities to issue financial aid packages, said Chaminade President Lynn Babington. Chaminade’s smaller applicant pool allows the university to process its FAFSA forms more quickly.

Chaminade has hired more representatives to visit high schools across the state and help families complete their FAFSA applications in 2024, Babington said. 

Typically, the University of Hawaii Manoa has encouraged students to submit their college and FAFSA applications by a priority deadline in early February. Students can still apply after February, but less funding for financial aid may be available, said Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management and interim director of admissions at UH Manoa. 

UH Manoa hasn’t changed its priority deadline yet but it’s considering moving it back to later in the year, Chun added. In the past, the university aimed to send out its financial aid packages between January and March. This year, Chun said, the university may start issuing financial aid packages in March at the earliest.   

UH Manoa will continue to encourage new students to enroll by May 1, but the university will be understanding of the delays students are facing this year, Chun added.

“We’re in a mode of just trying to be flexible,” Chun said. 

In the long run, the revised FAFSA looks promising for high school students, Green said, adding that he recently completed his own test application in 10 minutes. In past years, he said, the application has taken him around 30 minutes. 

But, he added, it will take time to work out the current challenges with the FAFSA, and the class of 2024 may pay the price. 

“I think the parents and the students are going to experience new levels of frustration that they don’t deserve,” Green said.

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