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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

FAFSA delays, glitches cause frustration for Wichita State students and financial aid staff

Thy Vo

College and high school students across the country are playing a waiting game as an update to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has been plagued by delays and glitches. This year, the new system has stalled award offers and left applicants and administrators confused and anxious.

“Every month, there’s been news of an additional delay,” Sheelu Surender, the executive director of financial aid and scholarships at Wichita State, said. “Then we also consistently are getting information with errors … that are preventing us from moving forward.”

The FAFSA Simplification Act, passed in 2020, attempted to expedite the FAFSA completion process by cutting its more than 100 questions to 30, expanding the number of students eligible for Pell Grants and introducing a new formula for calculating aid, the Student Aid Index (SAI).

However, the rollout of the new system this year has been delayed by a wide variety of errors. In previous years, applications opened in October, while this year, they began in January. 

Miscalculations from the United States Department of Education, including a failure to incorporate inflation into SAI estimates, have further stalled applications from reaching financial aid administrators.

Surender said that after a FAFSA application is completed and processed by the Department of Education, it is sent to Wichita State, where the financial aid office sends corrections back to students and determines the award offer.

In the past, the office would receive the first FAFSA applications in November and send out award letters the next month, but this year, they have just started to receive applications, according to Surender.

“The issue is that they had to completely overhaul the system,” Surender said. “And that’s where the delays were caused because they were not ready … So it’s like you’re building the ship as you’re trying to run it.“

‘The most frustrating thing in the world’

Wichita State student Allison Waldt received a full-ride scholarship during her freshman year of high school through the Give Back program, which gives aid to students who have had “adverse childhood experiences.” The scholarship requires a full Pell Grant and FAFSA completion by April 1.

Now a junior at Wichita State, Waldt attempted to apply for the FAFSA the first week it opened in January; however, she said the documentation that proves she is a provisionally independent student was erased from the FAFSA file.

The online financial aid website said additional documentation was required to prove her status. Waldt said when she called the financial aid office asking what information she needed to provide, they told her to wait until mid-March, when they would contact her with more information. 

That information still hasn’t arrived.

“I’m in this weird limbo of the financial aid department at WSU emailing me, telling me that I’m going to lose my scholarship if I don’t fill out my FAFSA, but I did fill out my FAFSA,” Waldt said.  “I’m waiting for the university to contact me with the kinds of documentation that they need for me to file the FAFSA.”

Waldt’s mother is under conservatorship, and her father is homeless. She said she has affidavits and court documents explaining why she is unable to procure their tax information for the application, but the website has prevented her from uploading those documents.

“I asked (WSU financial aid), I was like, ‘Hey, what happens if they don’t get back with me,’ and the only thing that people have been telling me is to wait, which is the most frustrating thing in the world when I’m being faced with my ability to go to college being taken away,” Waldt said. 

Waldt said without a scholarship for her senior year, she would be forced to drop out of college.

“I’m working currently part-time,” Waldt said. “I’m not going to be able to afford my tuition and my books and everything else that I’d need, which would be really disappointing because I’m, like, 80% done.”

High school uncertainty

The process has been just as frustrating for high school students attempting to apply for first-year financial aid at Wichita State.

Kayla Russell, a Wichita North High School senior, has been waiting three months to complete her FAFSA application because a glitch on the signature page has locked her out from finishing the process.

“I have absolutely no idea how much financial aid I’m going to get to go to college,” Russell said. “So I can’t really decide where I’m going yet … It’s been like this since January.”

Kayla’s mother, Sara Russell, said her daughter has been in tears over the uncertainty of her future college decisions.

“I would be pretty scared, not knowing what you’re jumping into, how much in debt you’re going to be,” Sara Russell said. “Because here she’s sitting at almost a 4.0 (grade point average) … I never thought that we would be here where she wouldn’t know by now, the end of March, what offers or where she could go.”

Across Unified School District 259, FAFSA completion rates are just over half of what they were at this time last year, with 651 completed compared to 1,252. 

Rachel Schmeidler, the college and career coordinator at Wichita North, said many students who cannot afford college, especially first-generation students, are currently “uncomfortable with enrolling” in higher education.

“This is probably going to be the first year since the FAFSA has been digitized that seniors are not going to have an idea of what they can afford by the time they graduate high school, which, in the broad picture, is going to affect enrollment,” Schmeidler said.

Schmeidler and Cammie Kennedy, the Wichita East High School college career center coordinator, said students come into their offices every day panicked and in tears over not receiving aid.

“We feel our students’ pain and stress,” Kennedy said. “And it is daily … and we take it home with us … Will they just hang in there and just wait for that award letter, or are we going to have to have another conversation with that student just to keep them motivated?”

Many students will likely receive their award offers after the school year closes, which could prevent them from making informed decisions about where to attend college. 

FAFSA assistance going forward

Schmeidler said she had been told some customer service representatives in financial aid offices have received death threats over the delays. She said many financial aid employees have quit over the stress of the changes.

Surender said that Wichita State’s financial aid office was “prepared from the beginning” for the new system, including a project management and customer support team to process and communicate changes.

“There’s so many intricate pieces of this that we have to have ready,” Surender said. “Both in terms of communication out to students and having that accurate, also forms that have to be ready for when we start receiving the FAFSA and we need students to complete verification or something else that’s required.”

Given the previous miscalculations from the Department of Education, it’s impossible to know when aid estimates will be fully accurate. Given no more errors, Surender said she expects returning students to receive their award offers by the regular date in June, while new students will have to wait until mid-April.

Until then, the financial aid office has been focused on communicating changes through a survey for returning students, outreach to parents and trips to Wichita high schools to help seniors. 

“My worry is it’s not getting to the students who might need it the most, which is our first-gen students who don’t have any type of model that they’re following in terms of how to do this,” Surender said.

The errors on the FAFSA page vary and are oftentimes not immediately fixable by advisers; however, Surender advised all Wichita State applicants, from high schoolers to returning students, to schedule an appointment with the financial aid office.

Surender, Kennedy and Schmeidler all encouraged college and high school students to keep working to complete the FAFSA as soon as they can and not give up.

“It’s keeping them positive and letting them know that they’re not the only one in this position,” Schmeidler said. “Whether they want to be a teacher, a nurse, go into welding … that dream is still achievable. We just have to be patient.”

To access the FAFSA, go to studentaid.gov. For more information and the latest updates from the Wichita State financial aid office, visit their page at wichita.edu.

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About the Contributors
Jacob Unruh
Jacob Unruh, Assistant Sports Editor
Jacob Unruh is the assistant sports editor for The Sunflower. He is a junior at Wichita State, majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. This is Unruh's first year on staff. He goes by he/him pronouns.
Thy Vo
Thy Vo, Advertisement/Design Manager
Thy Vo has been the advertisement manager and design director for The Sunflower for two years. Vo is a senior majoring in graphic design and minoring in marketing with hopes to pursue a career in graphic design after graduation. This is her third year on staff. You can alternatively contact them at [email protected]. Vo uses she/they pronouns.

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