"We've Witnessed the Challenges These Families Face"

September 27, 2016

By Teddy Gelderman and Kim Horner, Northfield TORCH

NCAN members work with students every day whose unwavering aspirations, dedication and perseverance in achieving their educational dreams illustrates the need for federal financial aid policies that concentrate resources where they are needed most. Northfield TORCH is one such member. (Read more stories like theirs here.)

To ensure financial aid gets to the students who need it most, NCAN recommends three immediate policy improvements for the new president and Congress: #FixFAFSA, keep the promise of the Pell Grant program, and provide work opportunities to low-income students.

One of the largest barriers students face in completing postsecondary education is the cost. In the past five years, our organization TORCH has helped more than 200 underrepresented students and families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and work through the financial aid process – and we’ve witnessed the challenges these families face to finish the FAFSA quickly and smoothly.

Tackling Obstacles, Raising College Hopes (or TORCH) is a college access program in Northfield, Minnesota, designed to help underrepresented students graduate from high school and attend college. While the financial aid process can be complicated for any student, those who are first-generation or come from low-income, minority and immigrant families face more obstacles than their affluent, white and college-educated peers. 

For TORCH families, perhaps the most difficult step in completing the FAFSA is income verification. Ideally, when students complete the FAFSA, they can electronically connect their application to the IRS’s official tax records, thus verifying their family’s financial situation. However, for many TORCH students, this process is not so simple. When families file their taxes late or use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a Social Security number, online verification is not possible and families must complete additional paperwork. 

One TORCH student, Sam, whose family immigrated to America and who is a U.S. citizen, couldn’t complete the FAFSA verification process because neither of his parents have the necessary paperwork to finish his financial aid verification. Sam had hoped to attend Inver Hills Community College, but when he couldn’t finish the verification process and therefore unable to receive the federal Pell Grant for low-income students, he enlisted with the U.S. Army instead. 

Another student, Alex, was failing to complete his financial aid application because his mother worked as an independent contractor, but never received the required W2 or 1099 tax form. Alex was eventually able to verify his family’s income, but only after several weeks of uncertainty that stretched into August. When he was able to register for classes, many courses were already full for the fall semester.

For numerous other students, the electronic signature is also a source of frustration. If a student’s parents are not U.S. citizens, do not have a Social Security number, or do not have an email address, students cannot use the online FSA ID signature and have to send a signature page through the mail. This process takes precious time – usually an additional three weeks. Many families do not have printers and several times, parent signatures have been delayed in the mail or lost altogether. Furthermore, if a student has submitted a parent signature page and needs to make an adjustment or correction to their FAFSA, it can take weeks before all of the paperwork is tracked down and amended. 

When students don’t face such obstacles, they can complete the FAFSA in as little as 20 minutes. But it took one TORCH student, Desiree, over two months to complete the process. There were complications with her verification, she needed a parent signature, and she had to make an amendment, which meant she had to obtain and mail a new signature page. 

These complications lead to delays – and for first-generation students, a delay in completing the FAFSA might determine whether they attend college. While many institutions send automated emails when a student’s financial aid application is incomplete, the messages are impersonal and do not always clarify what students still need to do. As a result, more than one TORCH student whose FAFSA was delayed did not attend college in the fall. TORCH students often do not have additional savings to use if federal funding does not come through. More than once, students eligible for aid have given up on the process, afraid that they will be stuck with a bill they cannot pay when FAFSA issues persist into the summer. 

Clearly, the financial aid process is complicated, and it is easy to fall behind or miss a deadline. These issues are common, disproportionately affect low-income and first-generation families, and are especially difficult to overcome for students whose parents are not U.S. citizens. 

FAFSA simplification is essential to ensure more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are can access higher education and are successful at a post-secondary institution.

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