From Seattle Promise to Washington College Grant, this state has some of the most generous public programs to help students and families pay for higher education. But thousands of eligible students are not filing the paperwork needed to get free college aid.
Close to 13,000 Washington high school seniors missed out on over $50 million in federal Pell Grants in 2018.
“There’s so much money being left on the table. This is a chronic problem for our state as a whole,” said Ashley DeLatour, programs manager for Futures Northwest. The nonprofit provides mentoring and workshops to help students from underserved communities find college and career opportunities.
The good news: For students heading to college for the 2022-23 academic year, you still have until the end of April to apply for support through federal or Washington state financial aid programs. And there are dozens of types of resources — including counselors, workshops, videos and printed informational guides — to help you through it.
Of the 81,057 anticipated Washington class of 2022 graduates, only about 37% to date have successfully completed the necessary form to receive federal student aid, according to data kept by the Washington Student Achievement Council.
According to Form Your Future, a national tool that tracks federal aid paperwork completions, the national average for completion is higher — about 42% have finished the paperwork. Washington ranks 46th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the percentage of its students who have finished the forms in 2022.
Nationally, postsecondary enrollment declined by 5.1%, or 937,500 students, since the start of the pandemic, according to research by the National Student Clearinghouse. But the National College Attainment Network found that seniors who complete a financial aid application are 84% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education. That percentage increases for students who come from a low-income background.
“There are still students and families who think they may not qualify,” said Sarah Weiss, the WSAC director of college access initiatives. She says every college-bound student should take the time to apply for financial aid.
For many applicants, the FAFSA — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — form is an overwhelming gatekeeper for college funding. It’s required paperwork for almost any kind of financial assistance.
Using a nickname, entering tax forms from the wrong year or picking the incorrect dependency status could result in disqualification, or keep a student from getting all the aid for which they are eligible.
“There are just too many ways for things to go sideways,” DeLatour said.
In order to complete the form, students and parents must work together to gather tax and income documents and bank statements, various forms of identification, residential information and a list of colleges where the student plans to apply. It also requires both the student and a parent to be proficient at filling out an online form and for each to register for a Federal Student Aid identification (FSA ID). These unique IDs are used to complete the online application process.
This year, there have been widespread reports of online systems errors in the application process, DeLatour said.
“These are government applications, and being locked out of them can be a pain,” Seattle Promise outreach specialist Francisco Ramos told students attending a recent virtual FAFSA workshop for Seattle Promise scholarship recipients. The program provides graduating high school seniors from Seattle public high schools up to two years of free tuition and support services through the Seattle Colleges.
Ramos urged students to work with a financial aid counselor to complete the form. He also urged them to have patience and compassion for themselves in the process. For students in the foster care system, or those who have a parent who is incarcerated, who are in mixed custody situations or have undocumented family members, the financial aid application process can be emotionally taxing and frustrating.
“These can be hard applications to complete,” he said.
To keep financial aid coming, college students must reapply every year. That’s a lesson DeLatour almost learned the hard way.
“I went to school as a nontraditional student. I didn’t know you had to reapply. I found out in a conversation in a library,” she said. “For me this work is very personal, to make sure everyone knows what they need to do.”
Another thing to watch out for: Families must use information from their 2020 tax return when filling out the form for the 2022-23 school year. If a student’s or parent’s income or financial situation has changed significantly since then, and the aid award doesn’t meet their financial needs, experts urge families to file an appeal.
In 2019, Congress passed a bill that will eventually simplify the FAFSA, reducing the number of questions from 108 to 26, and expanding Pell Grant eligibility. But those changes are happening incrementally. Updates to the FAFSA will be made when the new application period opens Oct. 1, and the other provisions will go into effect for the 2023-24 financial aid award year.
Currently the FAFSA is available in English and Spanish. If you are not a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, students living in Washington state can still apply for college aid through the free Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA). The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) has an online questionnaire at wsac.wa.gov/WASFAelig to help students determine whether they should apply for college aid through the FAFSA or WASFA. Students should only use one form based on the eligibility criteria they meet.
Still feeling confused or intimidated by this process? Experts say students and families don’t have to go through the financial aid process alone.
High school and college counselors are great resources, but they are often spread thin helping dozens of students at a time. Outside organizations like WSAC, Seattle Colleges, Futures Northwest, College Success Foundation and others can connect students and families with specialists, programs and even peer mentors who can speak firsthand about the process. Workshops and one-on-one counseling are available both during the school day and in the evenings.
Sarah Bishop, Seattle Promise’s assistant director, said students and families are more likely to complete the paperwork when they have many opportunities to get support throughout the college and financial aid application process. She said there’s an ongoing need for intentional and specialized efforts to support first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with learning differences, and students who may face language barriers to ensure they’re getting the aid and resources they need the most. Before the pandemic, support was mostly offered in person. But Seattle Promise staff found that virtual support proved helpful to families, so now there are more hybrid options for assistance.
Programs like Washington’s 12th Year Campaign are providing free training, professional development and resources for those working with high school seniors and their families to help increase the number of students applying for postsecondary programs and financial aid. DeLatour said the processes are changing all the time, and sometimes counselors can hand out dated materials or information.
“If we could have more counselors and specialists offering widespread, immediate support for people, that would be fantastic,” she said.