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Lawmakers hear about FAFSA application issues during recent interim meeting

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia is doing better than most of the nation when it comes to the number of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but there is still a decline.

On Sunday, Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (HEPC), presented an update to members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, during their interim meeting, about the number of students applying for FAFSA, and the current problems surrounding the application process. 

According to Tucker, 17 million students nationwide had filled out a FAFSA application at this time last year. This year, that number is down to 6 million. 

“We have a significant deficit right now,” Tucker stated, adding that the HEPC is working to figure out why this is happening.

“Unfortunately, the application process is still not working properly,” she continued. 

Tucker explained that, nationally, forty-six percent of submitted FAFSA applications were incorrect. Thirty percent of those incorrect applications were due to a faulty interface between the IRS and U.S. Department of Education that miscalculated the Student Aid Index (SAI). 

“All of those FAFSAs will have to be sent back to the federal government and recalculated,” Tucker said. “The estimated date for us to start seeing some of that recalculation is after May 1.” She then explained that the remaining 16% of incorrect FAFSA applications were due to “user error on part of the student,” and often involved forgetting a parent signature or entering the wrong county. 

“Historically, when a student has made those mistakes, there has been functionality within the system that the student can get a little error sign and go right back into the system and fix the problem. That functionality was not built into this process, and so those errors have not been able to be fixed,” Tucker said, adding that the FAFSA application will be taken offline to have those errors fixed. 

As for West Virginia, 6,400 high school seniors have filled out a FAFSA as of March 29, Tucker noted. 

“Across the nation our state is doing a little bit better than most,” Tucker said. “We are actually ranking 20th in the number of high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA.” 

Tucker attributed that rate to the FAFSA workshops that have been held statewide. 

Unfortunately, that number is still lower than it was last year. 

“That represents a 33.3% decline from this time last year,” Tucker said. “About 20% of those applications are considered incomplete, compared to six percent of those applications the same time last year.” 

Tucker also noted that FAFSA applications filled out by low-income Pell Grant eligible students was down 32.1%, and down by 35% for nontraditional students.  

She explained that the HEPC will continue to hold FAFSA workshops and work with institutions to help adult students fill out their FAFSA. 

Additionally, Tucker stated that the deadline for the Higher Education Grant Program, a need-based aid program, has been pushed back to July 1. The Promise Scholarship deadline, a merit-based program, has been pushed back to September 1. 

“The reason we pushed that one back further is because code doesn’t allow us to award Promise after the deadline, so we set the deadline as late as we could after the beginning of the fall semester so we could award as many students as possible,” Tucker said. 

Regarding the ongoing SAI issues with the FAFSA, Tucker said she still has concerns. 

“We cannot package the Higher Education Grant Program because [it] is a needs based program. We also can’t package WV Invests because that’s a last-dollar-in program. So, I need to know how much the federal government is going to be giving all of our students in order to know what our award is going to be for WV Invests.” 

“We are really sort of stuck in limbo until this functionality gets fixed,” Tucker stated, explaining that returning students could be given the same amount of higher education grants they previously received, and also for WV Invests, but that could result in errors as students’ financial needs change. 

“If push comes to shove then we don’t really have a choice, and I think that may be where we end up because I don’t want to keep stringing students along. I want to do the best we can to make sure they know they can go to college,” Tucker said. 

Due to the dual enrollment initiative passed by the state legislature last year, the higher education rate of attendance for students keeps “ticking up,” Tucker concluded. “I don’t want to ruin those efforts by something that is out of our control.” 

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