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Herrera leaned in close as the young woman — an aspiring math teacher enrolled at East Carolina University — pulled up the website for the Federal Student Aid office, or the FSA. The student then tried to create an FSA ID for her mother so the family could complete and sign the FAFSA, which more than 17 million students each year use to secure federal grants and loans, as well as state and institutional aid. “OK, now put the address,” Herrera said as the student reached Page 3. So far, so good.
The “Better FAFSA” isn’t, at least not yet.
But on the seventh and final page, a message popped up. “An unknown error has occurred,” it began, “please try again later.” Herrera sighed. “Aw, shoot,” she said. “We won’t be able to keep going from here.” She turned to the mother, explaining in Spanish that they would have to try again another day. The student’s shoulders sagged.
Herrera has seen the same thing happen again and again to parents who are undocumented immigrants ever since the revamped FAFSA opened in late December, three months later than usual. Because of an apparent glitch, parents without a Social Security number are locked out of the system: Even those who manage to create an FSA ID can’t start a FAFSA themselves — or contribute to a FAFSA their student has started. “There is currently no workaround for a parent without an SSN,” says a list of technical issues that the Education Department’s aid office posted on January 4. Such families, it says, will be able to finish the FAFSA “once the issue is resolved.” But the student-aid office hasn’t indicated how much longer that will take.
The situation is stoking anxiety among the nation’s mixed-status families, who’ve been hit the hardest, but complications with the form have been tripping up other applicants, too. One month after the new application went live, the form is available 24/7, but families making their way through it continue to encounter an array of error messages and unexplained snags. Submissions of signatures that won’t link to the student’s account. The disappearance of the “submit” button once users fill out the form. Pages that refresh and automatically submit the FAFSA before it’s complete, leaving applicants unable to make corrections until a later date. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, callers to the seemingly overwhelmed FAFSA support line often must wait for an hour or two to speak with a customer-service representative; some haven’t been able to get through after multiple attempts.
Those challenges are falling heavily on low-income and first-generation students, whom the new FAFSA was meant to help the most. Herrera, like many college-access advocates, fears that ongoing complications with the form will discourage some disadvantaged students, deter them from completing the application, and unravel their postsecondary plans. And after the Education Department announced that colleges won’t receive the first batch of completed FAFSAs until “the first half of March,” six weeks later than first promised, college counselors worry that the compressed financial-aid calendar will leave applicants with little time to make a college choice before the May 1 decision deadline — and that some still won’t have all their financial-aid offers in hand by then.
The FAFSA complications are also hampering busy college students who are juggling classes, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities. The aspiring math teacher who couldn’t create an FSA ID for her mother at Casa Azul de Wilson was born in the United States. She did not want to be identified because of her parents’ immigration status. As the soft-spoken sophomore closed a laptop covered with colorful cartoon stickers, she described her disappointment. “We do it all correctly,” she said of the FSA ID form, “then we get to the end, and it’s ‘No, never mind. Do it again. Try it again.’ We have to wait longer.”
The student turned to her mother, who wore a Burger King jacket. She had taken time off from her job at the fast-food restaurant to pick up her daughter from ECU’s campus, in Greenville, about 35 miles away. Then she drove her back to Wilson just to meet with Herrera in hopes of getting the FAFSA done. “Siete de siete,” the mother said. Seven out of seven pages completed before getting stuck. “It’s really frustrating,” she said in Spanish.
Herrera put her hand on the student’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’ll figure it out, OK? Whether it’s next week or next month. You’re not alone.”
That’s why Congress in 2020 approved a major overhaul of the federal-aid process, which included a redesign of the lengthy application that Herrera first completed as a high-school senior nearly a decade ago. The streamlined form that arrived in January, known as Better FAFSA, was meant to be much easier on students and parents.
But Herrera has long understood something important about college access: It’s not enough to ask how easy a particular step on the path to higher education is. You must also ask: How easy for whom?
Herrera’s parents emigrated from Mexico in 1990. The third of 10 children, she was born and raised in Wilson. As a teenager, she and her mother woke before dawn during the summer months to work in nearby tobacco fields; the job brought in extra money and deepened her appreciation for those in her community who had no choice but to toil under the searing sun.
Herrera graduated at the top of her high-school class. After earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in 2019, she spent two years working for the Carolina College Advising Corps, guiding families through the FAFSA’s many steps in English and Spanish.
Then, in 2021, Herrera and her older sister, Flor Herrera-Picasso, founded Casa Azul de Wilson, named after Frida Kahlo’s famous Casa Azul (“Blue House”) in Mexico City. After securing an airy second-floor office in town, the sisters filled it with brightly colored rugs and paintings, cozy couches, and lush plants to create a soothing, welcoming space. In one conference room, a colorful message on an exposed-brick wall says “Mañana Será Bonito” (Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful).
Growing up, Herrera felt that she had to “water down myself,” to suppress her culture and identity. Having come to embrace both, she wanted to help others do the same in a town where Latinas and Latinos make up about 12 percent of the general population but more than 20 percent of students in the school system. One of the Casa Azul’s focus areas is education equity. It guides Latino families through the admissions process by providing supportive, bilingual advising — and by pushing back on the notion that a college degree isn’t attainable.
Even those with the will to pursue a degree often lack the know-how. One low-income student Herrera knows recently paid out of pocket for a semester of community college because she hadn’t known how to complete the FAFSA by herself. So Herrera sat down and showed her how. “I used to joke about not wanting to do FAFSAs for the rest of my life,” Herrera said. “But I see the importance of doing FAFSAs. It brings me so much joy.”
The debut of the revised application was beset by delays, so Herrera had plenty of time to learn about the new federal-aid process, which expands eligibility for Pell Grants to more students. The FAFSA is much shorter than the previous version; some applicants can answer as few as 18 questions (previously, there were up to 103).
“It’s more user-friendly,” Herrera said.
But one change concerned her: All contributors to the FAFSA now must create their own FSA ID. That means each dependent student and at least one parent, regardless of the latter’s immigration status, needs one.
In the past, parents without a Social Security number were unable to create an FSA ID. Instead, they had to print, sign, and mail in a signature page so that their child’s FAFSA could be processed. Though applicants often had to wait a long time for those signature pages to get verified, that step was relatively easy for parents.
Here’s how the new process is supposed to work: After completing the steps to create an FSA ID account, a parent without a Social Security number answers up to four questions from TransUnion, the credit reporting agency, such as, “Which of these phone numbers have you ever used previously?” and “Which of the following is a current or previous employer?”
If any information they provide doesn’t match up with TransUnion’s records, the parent gets an email instructing them to contact the Federal Student Aid office by phone, after which they get a case number. Then the parent must complete an attestation form — available only in English — and submit documents proving their identity (a copy of a foreign passport, say, or a utility bill plus a municipal ID). Then they must wait for the Federal Student Aid office to review the documentation and approve their FSA ID.
Though federal law prohibits the use of data collected for the FAFSA for any purpose besides the calculation of federal aid, Herrera knew that the new process would cause anxiety among mixed-status families, who represent a larger share of the national population than some might think: In 2021, 3.7 million, or 6.9 percent of K-12 students in the United States had at least one undocumented parent, and about three million of those students are U.S. citizens, according to one analysis.
“It was a really big question mark in my community,” Herrera said of the identity-verification process. “There’s this fear about who’s receiving this document, who’s receiving the information that my parents don’t have a Social Security number. Am I putting my family at risk?”
But then came another source of anxiety: For many undocumented parents, the FSA ID process simply hasn’t been working. Although some parents without a Social Security number have answered the TransUnion questions and received an FSA ID, more than a dozen college advisers told The Chronicle, most parents haven’t even seen the questions pop up. Instead, they’re getting error messages — or a message instructing them to call the federal-aid office to begin the backup identity-verification process.
The problem: Many parents can’t get through. Each time Herrera has called for help with creating an FSA ID, she has waited an hour or two just to be told to call back later. Or she has heard the same automated message: “We are receiving historically high call volumes at this time. Please try again at another time or send us an email from the ‘contact us’ page on studentaid.gov. Goodbye.”
Elsewhere, some parents who got through and completed the verification process have been told that they would receive an email confirmation enabling them to finish creating their FSA ID in seven to 10 days. But several college counselors told The Chronicle that parents who submitted the required documents as early as January 4 still hadn’t received their confirmation email three weeks later. Some undocumented parents who’ve tried to create an FSA ID have seen a pop-up message stating incorrectly there’s a Social Security number on record for them.
“My worst fears came true,” Herrera said. “Our community has been let down by something that is supposed to help them out. It sucks, as a professional, to not be able to provide any type of comfort to these parents and to these students. Before, they were already scared to complete the FAFSA because of their legal status. And now this has been just another layer of uncertainty for our community. It’s really disheartening.”
Roberto Aguilar, a school counselor at Milwaukie High School, in Portland, Ore., has seen a range of experiences so far. “It seems to be working well for those who it works for,” he said. “For my typical Anglo families, they’re in, they’re out in a few minutes. For my first-gen, working-class families, it takes a little longer, but they don’t need me. But for my Latino families in which an adult doesn’t have a Social Security number, when they try to complete the form, it just locks, it just freezes, and they can’t advance. They’re frustrated and scared, and wondering, ‘Is my child going to be able to move on?’”
The roadblock undocumented parents keep encountering relates to a couple of major changes that were meant to ease the challenge of completing the FAFSA — and cut down on errors when families report their income. First, the new form enables parents to pull in their tax information directly from the Internal Revenue Service, an improvement over the cumbersome data-retrieval tool used in the past. And to protect that personal information, the FAFSA now requires at least one parent of a dependent student to create a separate account with their own username and password.
Previously, you could access the FAFSA with a single sign-on, allowing you to see both the student and parent portions. But now the form is a “role-based” application, in which students see only the questions they must answer, and parents get their own set of questions. After completing their portion, students invite their parent to contribute, and then the parent gets an email prompting them to complete their portion. Sounds simple, right?
But in low-income communities, it’s easy to find parents who don’t have an email account, who don’t know how to use a computer, who don’t have reliable internet access, who don’t read in English, who don’t have just one job, who don’t have a predictable schedule, and who don’t have much, if any, free time. That’s why many underrepresented students have long completed the entirety of the FAFSA on their own, often at school, with their parents’ permission. “This whole idea of inviting the parent to complete that portion is, honestly, another obstacle,” said Herrera, at Casa Azul de Wilson.
Kimberly Brown, a school counselor at Wade Hampton High School, in Greenville, S.C., had a similar thought. “One person can’t sit down and do the whole thing at one time, in one application, and hit submit, and that’s something that I’m concerned about,” she said. “There have been many times where I sat down with students and knocked it out in one sitting. Parents will send all their documents in with the student, and say, ‘Mrs. Brown, get it done.’ I wonder if it’ll be a barrier.”
Of course, plenty of high-school seniors are still completing both the student and parent portions of the FAFSA, with or without the help of a college adviser. The task is just more difficult now. Students must be able to access their parents’ email accounts while keeping track of various passwords and two-factor authentication codes — and tax documents if they can’t pull in Internal Revenue Service data.
That worries Teresa Steinkamp, director of advising at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, whose deep knowledge of the federal-aid form has led many families to call her “the FAFSA lady”: “Depending on who you are as a student — your demographics, your family structure, the community in which you live, and a variety of other circumstances — your experience with the form will be different from that of another student.”
The new FAFSA has introduced some new wrinkles for certain applicants. Previously, students whose parents are divorced had to get their custodial parent to complete the FAFSA. But now it’s whichever parent provided more than 50 percent of financial support over the previous 12 months. If a student’s parents are married and file taxes jointly, only one parent needs an FSA ID. But if they’re married and filing separately, or unmarried and living together, both parents need an FSA ID. And if one of your parents has a Social Security number and the other does not, the first parent can’t complete the FAFSA until the second obtains a verified FSA ID. Got all that?
“There are still a lot of young people who must navigate additional steps and figure out which parent goes on the form, what happens if a parent won’t contribute, or if a step parent is unwilling to provide their information,” Steinkamp said. “In some of these circumstances, we’ve actually made it more cumbersome for them, because, for the students who have to invite both of their parents to serve as contributors, now they have to persuade not just one but two parents to create an FSA ID, log in to answer questions, and then get all of this submitted by a deadline to be eligible for aid.”
Steinkamp believes that the FAFSA’s problematic rollout has undermined the message that the new form is easier or better. “I’m concerned that there will be students and families who give up, because sometimes, a minor thing can derail them,” she said. “They might not come back to fill it out, or they might miss a deadline because of seemingly minor frustrations.”
But even when the dust settles, Steinkamp doesn’t think the new FAFSA will benefit all students equally. “There are students who are already going to struggle to navigate this process, through no fault of their own, due to the inequities we’ve built into all of our systems and structures,” she said. “And this new FAFSA doesn’t fully address those things in a way that’s going to make it markedly easier for those students to complete this application. The changes to the FAFSA don’t address the fact that there are still many students whose family and personal circumstances do not fit neatly into these expected boxes that the form provides for them.”
But many are wondering about an urgent question: When will I receive all my financial-aid offers?
The question was echoing around the nation even before the Education Department announced that colleges wouldn’t get the first batch of completed FAFSAs until March. Families’ concerns about FAFSA delays were palpable at a late-January admitted-student event at the University of Illinois at Chicago, according to Maureen Woods, executive director of strategic recruitment and outreach. The institution serves a high-need population; more than 40 percent of students are first-generation. “We know our award notifications are going to be nipping the heels of May 1, with students given mere weeks to decide on attending,” Woods wrote in an email to The Chronicle. So the university decided to push its deadline to June 1. “We know it may impact a lot on our end to make this adjustment early, but hearing the anxiety from families — in January — about aid that won’t be ready until later this spring made it an easy decision.”
Sara Yelich Miller, executive director of Green Halo Scholars, a nonprofit group that helps low-income and first-generation applicants in the Chicago area, hopes to see many more colleges push back deposit deadlines. She worries that April will prove especially chaotic for her students.
“I’m not convinced that they’re going to have all their aid packages laid out in front of them by early or mid-April,” she said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do if, say, half the colleges extend their deadlines until June 1 and the other half don’t. It makes me nervous that students will miss out on opportunities that would have been really good for them.”
Some of Miller’s students who can’t complete the FAFSA haven’t felt like celebrating their acceptances from highly selective colleges, she said: “It’s so discouraging for applicants who are already having to do more work than other high-school seniors.” Though students from mixed-status families have had the hardest time, other students have encountered problems, too. Some have received perplexing emails stating that the Federal Student Aid office “cannot calculate” their aid eligibility after they’ve filed the FAFSA. Some have received an email stating that their FSA ID has been changed, though it had not. “It’s a smorgasbord of errors around here,” she said.
Anyone seeking help with those errors can call FAFSA support Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time and on Saturdays before 5 p.m. But there are limited evening hours — and no weekend hours — for families who need to complete the identity-verification process to get an FSA ID.
“The reality is, for a lot of our students and families, the times might not work for their schedules,” Anna Takahashi, director of college counseling at Eastside College Preparatory School, in East Palo Alto, Calif., said during a recent webinar. “It’s just not realistic for students and families to spend literally hours waiting for someone who can help them unlock an FSA ID.”
Uncertainty has sparked ingenuity, though. Since the application went live, students and parents have traded troubleshooting tips on Reddit and TikTok. What if you keep getting stuck on Page 3, the address page, when trying to create an FSA ID? Some users managed to get through by leaving it blank and then filling it in later. Was it true that a second parent lacking a Social Security number could enter all 6’s instead and complete the form? Some people online swore that it worked.
Ivanna Davydova, a freshman at St. Cloud State University, in Minnesota, tried to invite her mother as a contributor several times a day for more than a week, but kept getting an error message. Finally, on the advice of a college adviser, she deleted her portion of the FAFSA, after which her mother started the parent portion and invited her to contribute. And that did the trick.
But some people are just plain stuck. “@FAFSA I’ve been trying to reach you for 48 hrs by phone & email,” one mother posted on X, formerly Twitter, in mid-January. “I’m having trouble completing the parent section of the FAFSA w/ matching spouse info. Please reach out to me. I survived Covid as a health care worker but can’t survive the new FAFSA application.”
“We are aware of the issue,” the Federal Student Aid account replied, “and working quickly to resolve it.”
In a late-January call with reporters, James Kvaal, under secretary of education, described the overhaul of the federal-aid process and the FAFSA as a major undertaking. “These are the most significant changes to the financial-aid system in decades,” he said. “We’ve modernized or retired dozens of systems, some of which were 50 years old. Put it another way: The system was older than some of the parents using it.”
But had Congress given the department enough time and resources to complete the FAFSA overhaul?
The department is “certainly working under very substantial workload demands created by Congress,” a senior department official said, “and without additional resources that we requested to meet that workload.”
The same official acknowledged the widespread concerns about the latest FAFSA delay. “We know how important this is to students and families who are deciding where to enroll this fall,” the official said. “And, of course, we are very aware of the calendar that plays into that admissions process and the timeline that students and families are on. And our top priority is to get students as much financial aid as we can and to get them the information they need as quickly as possible.”
The Chronicle has twice asked the department to describe the nature of the issue preventing undocumented parents from accessing the FAFSA — and to share an estimate for when it will be fixed. But a spokesperson for the department and the senior official both declined to elaborate on the cause of the problem. “We are very aware of that issue, and fixing it is a very, very high priority for us,” the official said. “So we are working diligently with our vendors to implement a solution to that as quickly as possible.”
Sara Urquidez is executive director of the Academic Success Program, which provides college advising to about 7,000 high-school seniors in Houston, Dallas, and College Station. She has been watching the FAFSA completion numbers at the 27 schools her organization serves. In a typical year, the overall average completion rate would be about 30 percent a month after the application opened. As of late January, it was 13 percent.
Urquidez recently compiled an estimate of the percentage of students at each of her high schools who wouldn’t be able to submit a FAFSA right now, because their parents lack a Social Security number. At most of the schools, it’s at least 50 percent; at several, it’s 60 to 85 percent. “Many of our public institutions in Texas are first come first served for state aid,” she said. “So we have large numbers of students who aren’t able to submit at all, and they’re just getting further behind in this process. The more these delays happen, the more challenges that exist, the less likely it is that they’re going to end up in a first-year class for the fall semester.”
In late January, Urquidez attended a FAFSA Night that her organization hosted at a Dallas high school where four-fifths of students are Hispanic. At one point, she looked around the room and saw that nearly all the families were clutching cell phones, on hold with the student-aid office, trying to get an identity-verification case number or sort through some other problem they had encountered.
That night Urquidez spoke with an undocumented mother of four whose youngest child is a high-school senior. The student, ranked 11th in a class of 500, is poised to become the first in the family to attend college, but she can’t complete the FAFSA until her mother gets an FSA ID. “She doesn’t know how to help her daughter,” Urquidez said, “and she was very emotional about it.”
The same evening, Urquidez spoke with a father who had taken the day off work to solve a problem: When he tried to create an FSA ID, the system told him that he already has one even though he does not. But each time he called the 1-800 number, he couldn’t get through.
Urquidez watched parents who had arrived full of enthusiasm leave feeling dejected after being unable to complete the FAFSA: “I had zero answers for them. I could see the confusion when I said that I couldn’t tell them how much money they might get for college.”
Recently, a student at one of Urquidez’s schools called the Federal Student Aid office with her father — who doesn’t speak English — three times in one day. Though the student kept selecting the option for a Spanish-speaking customer-service rep, she said she kept getting an English-only one. She was told she couldn’t translate for her father.
In Dallas, as in many other cities, students who can’t complete the form, through no fault of their own, are sitting next to classmates who had no problems at all submitting it. “Maybe the worst part,” Urquidez said, “is seeing kids who are wrestling with that.”
Diana Almaraz, a high-school senior in Fort Worth, Tex., is one of them. She and her father, both U.S. citizens, each created an FSA ID without much trouble. But her mother, who is undocumented, had to take time off from her job cleaning houses to call in and verify her identity. The first time, Almaraz said, her mother spent two hours on hold before an automated message told her to call back later. The second time she waited for another two hours before reaching a customer-service rep. Still, though her mother completed the identity-verification process in mid-January, Almaraz said the family has received no notification that it’s been validated.
So Almaraz was still unable to list her mother as a contributor on the FAFSA so that she can submit the form: “It just says that there’s an error, and to try again.”
Almaraz, who plans to major in business, said the situation has caused her mother to feel guilty. “I’m still trying to get this done while my peers have finished it. It just kind of seems unfair, like the government doesn’t care about us, like their priorities are somewhere else.”
For those with no way to complete the form right now, for those encountering confusing technical snags, for those with complicated family situations, and for those from mixed-status families, the “Better FAFSA” isn’t, at least not yet. For all of them, the application is still exactly what it has always been — a barrier.
Everyone gathered around a conference-room table as a young woman began to create her FSA ID. She was a high-school senior with a middling grade-point-average. Her plan was to apply to Wilson Community College, buckle down, and earn good enough grades to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro after a year or two. “I’m going to college for myself,” she said, nodding at her parents, “and I’m also going for them.”
Her parents, undocumented immigrants who work at a nursery, had always wanted her to have financial security and find a job that makes her happy. The student beamed as she described her plan to become a pharmacy technician, a career she sees as important and rewarding.
Herrera perched beside her.
“Go ahead and try to log in,” she said.
“Now, put in your date of birth.”
The mother dug into her purse and pulled out her daughter’s Social Security card. She handed it across the table, and the student entered the nine-digit number.
“OK, cool beans!” Herrera said a couple minutes later. “So, log in with the ID you just created. Now you will be able to start your portion of the FAFSA.”
For this family, as for so many others, the application is a door through which a child can begin to claim a life far different from the one their parents have known. Many find the door easy enough to open; others struggle to get through it. And some, for now, must wait outside.
When the student tried to create an FSA ID for her mother, she couldn’t get past the third page. “Additional Info Needed,” a pop-up message said. “We need more information in order to create your account.”
Herrera pursed her lips. “So, we’re running into the same problem. Your parents don’t have a Social, so we won’t be able to complete the parent’s portion.”
The father adjusted the brim of his baseball cap. He said in Spanish that it was frustrating that his daughter, though born in the United States, would have to wait to finish the FAFSA because of her parents’ legal status. After Herrera explained what the verification process would require, he said, “it feels like we have more eyes on us.” And he worried that his daughter wouldn’t get any aid.
Herrera reassured them. She lightened the mood with a self-deprecating joke, and everyone laughed. “Muchas gracias,” the father said as his family got up to leave.
Herrera told them she would contact them as soon as the FSA ID issue was fixed. She told them that everything was going to work out. She just couldn’t say when.