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Early FAFSA could reduce summer melt, help more St. Louis students go to college

FAFSA October graphic
Ashland CTC | Flickr

For the first time, high school seniors can apply for federal student aid at the same time they apply for college.

Instead of opening the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in January as usual, the U.S. Department of Education started accepting FAFSA Oct. 1 using last year’s tax returns.

Local organizations working to boost the number of first generation and low-income St. Louisans enrolled in college say the new timeline could be a game changer.

“What has happened in the past is that they apply in the fall or early winter, they’re admitted, and then they’re waiting, waiting, waiting for the financial aid award; and when it comes the student has graduated high school or has pretty much settled on one institution he wants to attend, and the sad news of the financial aid award may derail that dream, said Faith Sandler, executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

“Hopefully by moving this process back we all have a better chance to help students not only to college but through college — so choose a college that is affordable and that is positioned to support them.”

The idea is to get financial aid packages in students’ hands earlier in the year, closer to the time they get their acceptance letters.

“If they get that information early, it’s likely that they can make a better and informed decision about what institution is going to be the most affordable and the best match for the student.”

In past years, students often didn’t find out how much help they’d be getting to pay for college until the summer. Scrambling last minute for an affordable option is the main reason for the phenomenon known as summer melt, said St. Louis Graduates co-chair Alan Byrd.

With help less readily available,and fewer options still open, as much as 40 percent of low-income high school seniors who say they’re going to college end up not enrolling come fall.

The coalition of organizations behind St. Louis Graduates started a summer counseling program four years ago to help reduce summer melt.

“We’re hoping that (accepting last year’s tax return) is a step in the right direction to where we won’t have as many students who have to change their plans in the late summer,” Byrd said. “We served 245 students this (past) summer. Many of them it was helping them find option B. These were students who planned to leave the state for college or go to certain universities, but by the time they received their financial aid packages and received their bills they realized they could not afford it.”

In addition to allowing students to receive their financial aid packages sooner by accepting FAFSA earlier, Byrd said accepting last year’s tax returns means students can more easily meet award deadlines and get better financial aid packages.

“If we had a student, for example on our campus last year, who either had issues doing the FAFSA or they didn’t get it done for some reason until April 10. That student would have missed out on the (state need-based) Access Missouri grant and they would have also missed out on our institutionally based grant, the UMSL grant. So that student would have lost upward of $3,000 in grant funding because they missed the priority deadline,” said Byrd, the dean of enrollment at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

But the earlier timeline does mean students need to apply now, said Sandler, because some priority deadlines are earlier.

“Waiting until the traditional starting point of Jan. 1 or not completing a FAFSA until later in the spring may truly disadvantage them in the financial aid process,” Sandler said. “If the funds have been awarded or there are not sufficient funds, you’ve missed that opportunity.”

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.