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Indiana falls short of FAFSA goal, but holds stable on completions despite rollout woes

A family works on completing the FAFSA form at Lawrence Central High School on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.
Rachel Fradette
/
WFYI
A family works on completing the FAFSA form at Lawrence Central High School on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

Fewer Indiana high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — this past school year than state leaders hoped. That’s mostly because of delays and glitches in the national rollout of a new form that made it harder for some students and families to complete the FAFSA.

The Commission for Higher Education set a goal to have at least 60% of the Class of 2024 complete the FAFSA.

But, as of June 21, only about 45% of high school seniors completed the FAFSA, according to data from the National College Attainment Network.

School districts, counselors and students faced several hurdles this year after the federal Department of Education unveiled a new application, which aimed to “simplify” the process.

Many schools were not aware of which students had completed the form because of a delay in federal data stemming from its overhaul.

In 2020, Congress ordered the Department of Education to rebuild the FAFSA system with aims to make it easier for families.

The application’s rollout was delayed months compared to previous years. Even after the rollout, technical issues plagued the FAFSA website. Some families, including many parents without social security numbers,encountered error messages that prevented them from completing their forms.

As the state’s April 15 priority deadline neared, fewer students were projected to complete or even start the application. State higher education officials strongly encouraged students to file by then because the aid is provided on a "first-come, first-served basis."

Students were under more pressure this year to complete the FAFSA, because of a new law that required all high school seniors to file the form by the state’s deadline. However, they didn’t face any penalties if they failed to complete it.

There’s some good to come from this year despite setbacks, said Michelle Ashcraft, a chief program officer for the Commission for Higher Education.

“In spite of the challenges we're seeing, we're pretty close to on track with what we saw last year,” Ashcraft said.

The number of students who completed the form remained on par from last school year despite complications.

Indiana’s year-to-year change in the number of application submissions is the lowest in the country, according to NCAN’s tracker.

About 370 fewer Indiana students completed the form this year compared to the 2022-23 school year, according to the tracker.

And those are not the final numbers as NCAN will continue tracking through September, Allison Kueher, a spokeswoman for CHE, said.

In the last several months, FAFSA coordinators and school counselors worked with students to complete the form amidst the troubled rollout.

Trinda Foley, a coordinator for MSD of Lawrence Township, said she and other coordinators tried to help students as best they could.

She encouraged students to try to finish their applications, and contacted families to provide assistance.

“I've met at the school with families to walk through some of the problems and glitches that they've run into and that's been pretty successful," Foley said. “Honestly, most of those students, parents leave with the edits made and FAFSA completed.”

Ashcraft said the commission will continue building a culture that informs people about filing the form and accessing aid. They took steps this year through outreach and communication efforts to get to more families, she said.

“We think a lot of the strategies that we’ve deployed this year will certainly help us to continue to climb on FAFSA filings and completions,” Ashcraft said in May. “Had there not been the challenges that we would have had with the rollout this year, we probably would have expected to far exceed what happened in previous years.”

Rachel Fradette is the WFYI Statehouse education reporter. Contact Rachel at rfradette@wfyi.org.