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Guidance counselors are strained amid FAFSA delays

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: It's been a tough year for high school seniors figuring out how to pay for college. That's because the bungled rollout of this year's FAFSA, where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid means they'll have less time to fill it out and then calculate how much college will cost. The delayed FAFSA is making the process more complicated not just for students, but also those trying to help them. From GBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza reports.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Surrounded by many college pennants, counselor Caitlin Serna puts in the long hours assisting students struggling with college expenses. She meets with them one-on-one inside her cramped office at the Henderson Inclusion School here in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood.

CAITLIN SERNA: Why don't you just open up the doc?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Which one?

SERNA: The doc, the supplement doc.

CARAPEZZA: The delayed and troubled rollout of this year's FAFSA has left Serna scrambling to help her seniors fill out these forms before they make their college decisions in May. First, the government came out with a new form at the end of December, three months later than expected. Then, once it was out, it contained a big mistake calculating how much federal aid students would get. It didn't account for inflation. Fixing that blip could now delay award letters until April at the earliest. Serna says trying to help dozens of students complete all of this paperwork by colleges' financial aid deadlines has been time consuming and frustrating.

SERNA: I want to provide the best college and career support for my students that I can. I'm only one person. And we only really have, like, the school day. So it's just time is limited, and working one-on-one with students is the most effective way to reach them. And I fear there will be some students who fall through the cracks.

CARAPEZZA: Some students might not get the attention they need filling out the notoriously complicated form and just give up. Others might not choose to go to college at all if they don't know what kind of federal aid they qualify for soon. This all comes as fewer Americans are choosing college straight out of high school, in part because they say it's unaffordable.

BOB BARDWELL: It's a huge mess.

CARAPEZZA: Bob Bardwell is executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. He says students in wealthy suburbs tend to have more college advising, whether it's public school counselors or paid private advisers.

BARDWELL: They're definitely going to be haves and have-nots, but it's just poor timing.

CARAPEZZA: The three-month delayed release of the FAFSA could result in fewer students enrolling. Brendan Williams is a vice president with the nonprofit uAspire, which works with school counselors. He points out most students in the U.S. need to know what college will cost before committing.

BRENDAN WILLIAMS: It could force them to make decisions that they didn't really want to make because most folks cannot afford to pay out of pocket for college.

CARAPEZZA: The Education Department announced recently it would provide additional funding to help high-need colleges hire more staff to process applications more quickly. Speaking to reporters, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the new form, although late, is transformational.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CARDONA: We know some colleges will struggle with this more than others. We're determined to get it right. We must, and we will.

CARAPEZZA: The strategy, though, won't directly help high school counselors on the front lines.

SERNA: Please, only seniors in here allowed.

CARAPEZZA: Back at the Henderson School in Dorchester, Caitlin Serna is the only college counselor for about 70 seniors. Most of them say they plan to go to college, so that's a lot of paperwork.

SERNA: Were you able to get some work done on the Fitchburg supplement?

I'm trying my best out here to get almost, like, 100% completion rate, but it's still really just me.

CARAPEZZA: For now, the messy FAFSA rollout has left students like Hari Ramlochan in limbo.

HARI RAMLOCHAN: You want to go to a school that offers, like, good money, but also you're getting a good education.

CARAPEZZA: With the delayed FAFSA, though, he'll have less time to decide where to go to college and how to pay for it. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kirk Carapezza
[Copyright 2024 WGBH Radio]