How FAFSA Delays Are Affecting Milwaukee’s Most Vulnerable Students

Milwaukee Public Schools students attend the Skilled Trades & Technical Career Fair at Milwaukee Tool in downtown Milwaukee in October 2023. Many Milwaukee high school graduates have had their college plans put on hold due to delays and changes to the FAFSA form. (NNS file photo by Jonathan Perez)

Many needy students in Milwaukee and across the state are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain financial aid for college because of unexpected obstacles they face from federal officials trying to simplify the process.

The Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid, or FAFSA, is a form completed by current and prospective college students that determines the amount of financial aid they may receive.

The results are often used to help students decide what university they can afford and to assess whether they should consider other support options if necessary.

During a typical school year, students and families can begin completing the FAFSA on October 1. The sooner a student completes the FAFSA, the sooner he or she can enroll in school.

This year, however, changes to the FAFSA regulations delayed the process and applications could only be submitted in late December.

Research shows delays have hit Milwaukee’s Black and Brown students the hardest.

Delayed application process

Sugey Contreras started the FAFSA process in February but said it wasn’t completed until mid-May.

“It was a very stressful time for me,” Contreras said. “And I think just the recent changes (to the FAFSA) have put students with undocumented parents at a disadvantage in general.”

Contreras, a graduate of Carmen High School of Science and Technology who is entering her freshman year of college, said she found the entire process frustrating and stressful because its length clashed with deadlines.

She had to commit to going to school and accepting certain scholarships by a certain date, which almost cost her the opportunity

Most colleges and universities expect pledges to be submitted by May 1, National College Decision Day. Because of the delays, students like Contreras were unable to meet that deadline.

According to Zuleyka Rios, director of post-graduation success at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, the delays and changes in the FAFSA process have hit the school hard because it employs a team that actively helps students complete the FAFSA.

“We’re intentionally proactive, so not being able to start in October was already tough,” Rios said. “Then, because of the changes, instead of doing group FAFSA days, we had to spend a lot of time meeting with families individually.”

According to his website, “100 percent of Cristo Rey Jesuit graduates are accepted into two- and four-year colleges. Rios said that historically, every student would have completed the FAFSA and received their aid packages by April. But this year, there are still students waiting.

Marginalized students suffered the most

A recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum finds that as a result of delays and other changes to the FAFSA form, completion rates have plummeted both nationally and in Wisconsin.

U.S. Department of Education data shows that through April 26, Wisconsin’s graduation rates have fallen from 42.4% in 2023 to 33.9% in 2024.

The declines were even greater in schools with higher proportions of students who were nonwhite, came from low-income families or did not speak English as a first language, the Policy Forum report found.

Allison Wagner, executive director of All-In Milwaukee, a local college completion program, said she has seen firsthand the challenges Milwaukee students face due to delays and changes in the FAFSA application.

“Our students rely on federal money to complete their degrees,” she said. “And they waited until the last possible day to allow students to start the process, so students with longer last names or those whose parents applied late suffered.”

Wagner said she worries about what this will mean for fall enrollment. “Students graduating lose the support system of counselors and school counselors as summer approaches,” she said.

What happens next?

Contreras said her friends decided to take a different route because they were having trouble completing the financial aid application process.

“I just wanted to give up and do something else,” she said. “But my parents worked hard for my education, and I want to be able to give back.”

Fall enrollment will likely decline, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Contreras said some of her friends are still struggling to complete the process.

“I think it’s helpful to offer any support you can to students trying to complete the FAFSA process,” she said. “It’s a long, stressful process, and knowing you have help means a lot.”

Where to go if you need help

Milwaukee Public Schools is hosting several FAFSA events for students in need. Find out more here.

The FAFSA website itself may be helpful.

The Fair Opportunity Project offers a variety of free services, including a college application guide, free essay reviews for scholarships or applications, virtual advising, and a service to help students and families complete FAFSA applications.