WYSO's American Graduate series, “What's Next,” is looking at students in their senior year of high school. Today, we talk with seniors about getting financial aid for college. The first step in that process is the Federal Application for Student Aid—or FAFSA for short—and a lot of local seniors have already missed the first deadline related to that form.
One form, multiple deadlines
The average college graduate will leave campus almost $30,000 in debt. With that in mind, high school seniors aren’t just worried about getting accepted into a college. They’re also worried about how to pay tuition.
At Ponitz Career Technology Center, a Dayton Public High School, Joanne Viskup’s Media Arts class is talking about financial aid applications. They’re all seniors, but only two of ten students in the class finished their FAFSA ahead of the March 1 priority deadline at local colleges, like Wright State University and the University of Dayton.
That first deadline can be a big deal for some students: While they can still turn in their FAFSA for federal and state aid, missing a college deadline takes away some opportunities and limits others, like scholarships.
“Colleges have a certain amount of money,” Viskup tells her class, “and they kind of give it away on a first come, first serve. So, if you’re late, you might have been eligible for that merit scholarship, but that money’s already gone to that kid that did that by March 1.”
In addition to the college deadline, there are even earlier deadlines for some scholarships, and every college works on its own schedule with its own deadlines.
If that sounds confusing, there’s a good reason: It is pretty confusing. Ponitz student Remi Greathouse thought there was only one deadline for all types of aid—and she thought she’d missed it.
“I thought the deadline [for everything] was March 1,” Greathouse said, “but come to find out, it’s just for priority people, like scholarships. So, I just found out I could finish my financial aid. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go to college.”
The paper chase
Deadlines are only one complex aspect of FAFSA; taxes are another.
“The problem is, they want your parents’ taxes and your taxes,” Ponitz senior Corey Nash says. “I don’t know how to actually do the taxes. That’s the only thing that’s gonna drive me nuts with the FAFSA.”
Nash’s confusion is common. A lot of high school seniors are trying to figure out both FAFSA and federal taxes, and FAFSA does require students to have tax information for themselves and their parents—but most people don’t file their taxes until April, long after some deadlines.
Students can apply by using a previous year’s return or providing estimates, but many students are unaware of this fact, and guidance counselors, the go-to people on this topic, are often too busy to meet with every student in a timely fashion.
Getting through it together
“It is very difficult to talk to the guidance counselor,” Ponitz senior David Lambes says. “He is always busy.”
But the Media Arts students aren’t complaining. They seem to sympathize with their senior guidance counselor, Kevin Kuehner. Senior Demetrius Oglesby says “it must be hard” for the counselor to deal with so many students, and the class agrees.
Kuehner refuses to say he’s overworked, but it seems undeniable.
“Am I overworked? I’m definitely coming in here every day busy with things to do,” Kuehner says. “I guess the only thing I can say is that the school counselor ratio is one to 25o students—the suggested school counselor ratio—and right now we’re sitting with two high school counselors in a school of approximately 800. We’re sitting at one to 400.”
This is Kuehner’s first year as senior counselor, but he has a game plan. He’s visited every senior government class to make sure each student gets a Federal Student Aid Number. He’s also partnered with a job center and a community college to host FAFSA workshops for students and parents at the school.
At one of those workshops, Ponitz parent Ericka Patton is filling out a FAFSA form with her daughter, and she has some advice for the parents of high school juniors.
“Tell them to research, research, research! Right now,” she says. “And be prepared for it when they hit their senior year.”
And Ponitz senior Remi Greathouse has some advice for juniors. “You don’t want to miss a deadline,” she says, “because you don’t want to miss out on something good.”
The federal government is also trying to help out with the application process. Following a 2015 announcement of a number of federal reforms, next school year FAFSA will be accepted starting in October instead of January, giving the class of 2017 a better chance of getting their FAFSA in on time.