Their financial aid was in limbo. What did these students decide about college?

For many high school seniors and others hoping to attend college next year, the last few months have become a stress-filled struggle to complete the trouble-prone, much-maligned FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The rollout of this updated and supposedly simplified form was so delayed, error-ridden, and confusing that it has derailed or severely complicated college decisions for millions of students throughout the United States, especially those from low-income, first-generation, and unauthorized immigrant families. 

The bureaucratic mess is also holding up decisions by private scholarship programs and adding to public skepticism about the value of higher education – threatening progress in efforts to get more Americans to and through college. 

Why We Wrote This

Problems with a federal financial aid application have impacted college decisions. Faced with uncertainty around costs, how are members of the class of 2024 deciding what to do next?

To see the impact in person, The Hechinger Report sent reporters to schools in four cities – San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and Greenville, South Carolina – to hear students’ stories. Because we found them through schools, most of those we interviewed had counselors helping them. For the millions of students who don’t, it’s an even more daunting task. 

“It was stressing me every day,” said one San Francisco senior who was accepted to 16 colleges but could not attend without substantial financial aid. Some became so frustrated they gave up, at least for now. Others said they will turn to trade schools or the military. 

Students whose parents are unauthorized immigrants had special worries, including concern that naming their parents would bring immigration penalties (although the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids FAFSA officials from sharing family information).

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