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Student Applications Still Recovering After Online FAFSA Debacle

Some university administrators are imploring students to apply for financial aid after the rollout of a new online FAFSA (Free Application for Financial Aid) system this year was beset by glitches and delays.

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(TNS) — The number of aspiring Colorado college students who submitted their federal financial aid forms rebounded in recent months after the bungled rollout of a new system — and even though applications are still behind pace, university administrators acknowledged the damage is not as severe as expected.

Still, a few Colorado schools expect reduced enrollment this fall due to the mess surrounding the Free Application for Financial Aid, known as FAFSA. Educators caution the nationwide problems with the new federal form represent a “crisis” for marginalized students whose barriers to college have become even more restrictive.

That fear is so notable that Adams State University President David Tandberg is personally calling students to nudge them to apply for the financial aid they’ll need to attend school.

“Having the botched FAFSA rollout — that hit at the core of who we are,” Tandberg said of the public university in Alamosa. “We’ve been doing everything we can to get students to complete their FAFSA and register for classes, and I think it’s paying off. But it’s been a real challenge.”

About 11 percent fewer Colorado students have submitted their FAFSA as had at this time last year. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid uses the online form to determine how much financial aid students qualify for based on their family’s income.

According to the National College Attainment Network, about 36 percent of Colorado’s 2024 high school class as of late June had submitted a FAFSA. That’s below the national FAFSA submission rate of about 45 percent.

Still, the drop in applications by Coloradans has improved significantly from early April, when 27 percent fewer students had completed the FAFSA than by the same time in 2023.

The Department of Education introduced a new version of the FAFSA in late 2023 in a bid to make it easier to use and provide more money to needy college students.

But the rollout of the new online form was plagued with delays, errors and widespread confusion, leaving students and higher education experts worried about a lack of participation in a program that can make the cost of college feasible for marginalized students. Students and families who don’t know how much federal aid they qualify for or are met with one too many barriers trying to fill out the paperwork may decide to call it quits on pursuing a degree, educators feared.

Additionally, some universities in Colorado — especially those serving primarily lower-income students — still anticipate enrollment declines this fall due to the FAFSA mess, though other schools are gearing up for a record year of admissions.

“It’s been the most strenuous, worrisome, horrible service being provided by the government that I’ve seen in my over 40 years of doing this work,” said Marty Somero, the University of Northern Colorado’s director of financial aid. “This was by far the biggest fiasco for a social program of the federal government in my lifetime. I think everyone is holding their breath.”


This time last year, 982 students were registered to attend Adams State University. Now, the Alamosa campus has 904 enrolled students for the fall semester.

“We’re a small institution,” Tandberg said. “For us, being down close to 80 students is a lot.”

Tandberg is hopeful that, by fall, enrollment will have caught up. They’ve been adding more students each week, he said. A few months ago at the height of the FAFSA conundrum, the university was down by about 300 students, a “pretty dramatic” consequence of the new error-prone financial aid application.

“It’s been scary as hell,” Tandberg said.

Adams State enrolls the largest share of students who receive Pell Grants of any university in the state, Tandberg said. Pell Grants are federal grants that don’t need to be paid back and are awarded based on financial need, meaning they help make college possible for low-income students.

Similarly, Fort Lewis College budgeted for a 3.5 percent enrollment decline this fall in light of the FAFSA debacle, officials at the Durango school said.

The fallout has impacted low-income, Black and Latino communities most and threatens to widen college gaps in this marginalized demographic, according to a report released last week by think tank the Century Foundation.

Communities with higher numbers of people living in poverty, non-college adults or Black or Latino residents showed year-over-year FAFSA completion declines 20 percent greater than those in areas with low numbers of these groups, the report found.

Consequentially, the researchers said institutions can expect enrollment declines linked to race, educational attainment and income.

Kiara Calderon, a University of Colorado Denver student who wrapped up her second year this spring, had to fill out her FAFSA three times before she was able to submit it.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Calderon said after the Denver Scholarship Foundation helped her sort out the glitches one April afternoon at the height of the FAFSA snafu. “I was wanting to cry at certain times.”

The Denver Scholarship Foundation provides financial assistance, helps students apply to college and supports them once they’re enrolled. The foundation has been holding frequent in-person and virtual workshops to help students complete their FAFSA since the new form frequently required intervention from a trained professional, said Natasha Garfield, the foundation’s director of scholarships.

During a one-on-one appointment, a foundation staffer helped Calderon and her Spanish-speaking mother overcome issues preventing the form from being submitted. The staffer broke down the problems in Spanish, and the relief on Calderon’s face was palpable once finished.

Calderon is the first person in her family to go to college. Without financial aid, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to study criminal justice and, hopefully, pursue a career as a victim advocate.

“It’s the only way I can go to college and create my future,” Calderon said. “With this, I can pave the way for me and my family to have a better future.”

Garfield said while many of the issues that tripped up students a few months ago have been resolved, problems with the FAFSA persist for students whose parents are undocumented.

“Basically, if they don’t have one-on-one support from somebody who knows exactly how to troubleshoot it, it’s pretty much impossible for them to get through it,” Garfield said. “The level of persistence needed to make it through this is really astounding.”


Other institutions across the state feel like they can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

A few months ago, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s chief enrollment officer Long Hunyh would have predicted a disastrous fall enrollment. But the tide has turned in the past several weeks.

The Auraria Campus institution is projecting a 2.8 percent enrollment increase from last year, despite the FAFSA challenges. The forecasted undergraduate headcount in 2023 was 10,452 students. Now the university is sitting at 10,753 students, according to MSU Denver data.

However, students are still catching up on FAFSA completion. Around 28,242 FAFSA records had been submitted to MSU Denver as of mid-June, the most recent available data. In 2023, that number was 10 percent higher at 31,671.

“I think we are in a better place today, and I’m optimistic that our enrollment is not going to be as bad as we anticipated,” Hunyh said. “What we don’t want families to do is leave money on the table by thinking they may not qualify, their family makes too much or they heard the application is too complicated. We are encouraging students, regardless, to submit the application.”

At the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, longtime financial aid director Marty Somero said despite the FAFSA challenges, UNC is well-positioned to meet enrollment goals for the fall.

About 66 percent of continuing students have filled out a FAFSA for the fall term compared to about 68 percent during the previous year, Somero said. As for new students, there is about an 8 percent decline in FAFSA filers, Somero said, but did not provide the actual number.

Meanwhile, the University of Colorado Boulder touted in the spring a record-breaking 68,000 applications for the fall of 2024 — about a 20 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Daily Camera newspaper.

Financial aid experts urged aspiring college students to reach out for help with FAFSA by contacting a university’s financial aid department rather than giving up on a troublesome form.

“For students still on the fence, don’t let the negativity drive you from trying or at least talking to a financial aid office or school,” Somero said. “We’re still here and wanting and waiting to help families.”


Some of the enrollment uptick in the past several weeks at Adams State is likely the natural rhythm of allowing FAFSA kinks to work themselves out, Tandberg said. But the university has also been hard at work enticing students to complete the form and enroll.

The San Luis Valley institution holds weekly in-person and virtual office hours for anyone, no matter which school they’re applying to, to receive FAFSA help. Staff have made repeated local high school visits to walk students, parents and counselors through the process.

“We’ve even gamified it,” Tandberg said. “If you complete this many steps of the FAFSA, you’re registered to win a Nintendo Switch. We’re doing everything we can do.”

While crucial now, this is work Tandberg said Adams State should have been doing all along considering the large share of low-income, first-generation students on campus.

“So many of them have structural barriers their entire life and a lot of their interactions with state agencies hasn’t been positive,” Tandberg said. “A big part of Adams State’s role is helping our students overcome the structural barriers that have been put in front of them their entire lives.”

An enrollment decline means fewer students seeking higher education, but it also spells trouble for the universities that rely on tuition dollars to keep operations afloat.

Tandberg admitted Adams State has been financially struggling for years and finally turned the corner with an increase in enrollment the past school year.

“So then to be hit with this FAFSA crisis when we were getting our head above water — that hurt,” Tandberg said. “We need money to deliver the education we provide our students. We need professors. We need services. All of that.”

Updated 11 a.m. July 9, 2024: This story has been updated to correct the number of FAFSA records submitted to MSU Denver by mid-June. That figure is 28,242,

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