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Yet another FAFSA problem: Many noncitizens can't fill it out

John Lamb
Getty Images

Most days, Vanessa Cordova Ramirez wakes at 6 a.m. to take care of her little brother, walk the dog, make breakfast, and tidy up her family's Queens apartment before heading to school.

She's a planner. Otherwise, the 17-year-old says, she couldn't manage schoolwork, extracurriculars, two jobs, and family responsibilities. "Life is a little hectic," she admits.

Cordova Ramirez is in her final semester at Williamsburg Preparatory High School, and already has acceptances from all five of her top college choices. Location – a college near her family in New York City – was top priority, she says. But next on the list? Affordability. In order to make this dream come true she needs federal financial aid and scholarships.

It's a moment she's been planning for years. But last month, when Cordova Ramirez and her mom sat down with a counselor to fill out the FAFSA, the form that will determine how much assistance she'll receive, all they got was an error message.

"They don't have any solutions for us"

The family is not alone. The rejection has been a common error for students with parents who are not citizens, says Kristin Azer, a college counselor at Williamsburg Prep. In reporting this story, NPR spoke with counselors, advocates and parents who reported similar problems.

Since the form opened in January, Azer, Cordova Ramirez, and her mom have tried to complete the online application more than 20 times. Each time, they get the same error message, directing them to a phone number for any questions.

"We've called the number. They don't have any solutions for us," Azer says. When they call, they get a recording that provides old and outdated information. When she's lucky enough to get a live person on the line, often after waiting on hold for hours, they tell her to try again later.

"Do you understand how frustrating that is?" she says. "You act like we just have all the time in the world to just sit down."

It's the latest in a series of problems with the FAFSA this year. The form rolled out months late, setting colleges scrambling to get financial aid packages out in time. Even with the extra time to get it correct, NPR reported recently on a technicality the department overlooked – potentially costing students almost $2 billion.

Concerns about bad advice

The implications of this latest problem are huge, preventing families from getting essential access to money for college, or even making informed enrollment decisions about how much a college education will cost them.

The U.S. Education Department says it is aware of the error and is working on a fix. In the meantime, there have been troubling reports of potentially risky workarounds – like asking students to take photos of their parents' passports and email them to the Ed Department.

"First of all, that assumes [the parents] have one," says Bill Short, who runs a scholarship program for first-generation students at Saint Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Beyond that, he adds, it raises serious concerns about online privacy:

"Emailing a sensitive document like that is about as insecure as it gets. You might as well make [the required paperwork] into a paper airplane and toss it out the window."

The long wait continues

The Education Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the timetable for a fix, or about the reports of families being told to send photos of their passports through email.

In past years, the general guidance with FAFSA has been for students to complete it as soon as possible. Amid the current delays, some universities have pushed back enrollment deadlines from the usual May 1 to June 1, while others have made their deposits refundable.

Meanwhile, the frustrations are mounting for students and their families as they watch "everybody else get a head start on you," says Short.

"You're still standing in the starting line waiting for someone to say, 'OK, now you can go,' " he adds. "Your perception is: 'By the time I finally get there, they're going to cross the finish line, and the money's going to be gone.' "

Cordova Ramirez feels that frustration deeply.

"I have done everything," she says. "I've taken the extracurriculars. I've tried to make a good application for myself for colleges to be like, 'Yes, that's someone we want.' "

Every day, she asks herself the same questions, over and over: "Am I going now? Am I going to pursue the career that I want? Am I going to be something in life?"

Audio produced by: Janet Woojeong Lee and Mallory YuEdited by: Steve Drummond
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Corrected: February 13, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story said "students with parents who are not citizens" can't fill out the FAFSA. It has been updated to clarify that "students with parents who don't have a Social Security number" can't fill it out.
Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
Janet W. Lee