Opinion: Here’s why we must help NH students with the new FAFSA

Dreamstime/ TNS

Dreamstime/ TNS Dreamstime/ TNS


Published: 04-02-2024 6:00 AM

Christiana Thornton is the president and CEO of Granite Edvance (formerly the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation, or the NHHEAF Network).

The class of 2024 is facing a critical moment that could affect many students’ career trajectories and have other lasting repercussions. In our work helping students navigate the college application process, we’re hearing that many high school seniors are starting to feel confused, frustrated, and adrift as they approach important milestones.

The reason? A single form. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key component of the college application process. This year, the FAFSA got an overhaul by the federal government. It’s been streamlined and outfitted with an updated aid calculation formula.

Containing far fewer questions and pulling data directly from tax returns, the new FAFSA does seem to be delivering on the promise of simplifying financial aid. As we support families in filing their forms this year, we’re hearing a lot of wait, I’m done? Not only that, but the number of NH students eligible for a Federal Pell Grant will increase by more than 12,000 next year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The bad news: Due to the changes, the FAFSA was released almost three months late. The delay threw off timelines for students and colleges. Then, after it came to light that the new aid formula did not account for inflation, the U.S. Department of Education had to make operational changes, creating a processing delay.

Now, FAFSA processing timelines and the release of financial aid offer letters are starting to bump up against the traditional May 1 college decision deadline. Many colleges are extending their deadlines, and since students are all in the same boat, they’ll all, in theory, arrive where they need to be in the fall.

But we all know that theory isn’t reality. We don’t have to look back too far in history to see what happens when students lose momentum on their education journeys. College enrollment numbers plummeted during the pandemic and are only just beginning to recover. Some students’ plans were derailed indefinitely.

We’re starting to see evidence that the FAFSA delays could have a similarly adverse, if less dramatic, effect. Nationally, FAFSA completion rates are down by more than 30% this year. Of course, that dip is due in part to the late opening of the FAFSA. But we’re also hearing from college financial aid officers that students seem to be losing steam and even interest in the application process.

Granite Edvance is a nonprofit that supports students in navigating their education and career pathways. We’ve been working hard to inform and support students and help them maintain excitement about college during these stressful times. Along with offering a variety of resources and services, we’re reassuring them and their families that processed FAFSAs and offer letters are coming. We’re also working with school counselors as they navigate a FAFSA completion graduation mandate that went into effect this year in the state.

Currently, New Hampshire’s FAFSA completion rate lags last year’s by less than any other state. Our numbers are down just 21.6%. But there’s more work to do.

The FAFSA is just a form, but it’s an enormously important one. The maximum Pell Grant in 2022-23 was $6,895. That’s money that doesn’t have to be paid back.

What some people don’t realize is that the FAFSA also functions as a gateway to other types of aid. Many colleges use it to award their own need-based aid. And even students who don’t qualify for Pell Grants can receive aid from colleges based on their FAFSA. Many scholarships, including our own, use FAFSA information to award aid, too.

Yes, the FAFSA also unlocks federal loans, but families are not obligated to accept them. We’ve been working to dispel misconceptions like these because, despite the challenges, the FAFSA matters — for students and for our state. New Hampshire industries have looming needs that will require a well-trained workforce.

Of course, the FAFSA won’t figure into everyone’s plans. Students may opt for pathways that don’t include college for any number of reasons, we just don’t think that frustration over a form should be one of them.

Students and families: Take heart, and know you’re not alone. You can still file the FAFSA, and we can help with that. If you’ve already filed, rest assured that college staff are working hard to get offer letters out to students.

High school and college staff who are supporting this massive effort: You are seen and appreciated. Keep going!