Education, Latest News

Justice declares emergency over problems with FAFSA

Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for higher education because of ongoing problems with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called FAFSA.

His declaration seemed to be a symbolic gesture about ongoing problems with the federal financial aid program as well as an approach to streamlining West Virginia’s part of the process.

FAFSA has been rocked by frustrating delays and technical problems stemming from the rollout of a redesigned form intended to ask fewer questions and include more automated features.

Parents and students across the nation have reported trouble completing the application, resulting in frustrations that have discouraged many from completing the process. Many colleges, in turn, have been delayed in assessing and completing financial aid packages.

“Today I am declaring a state of emergency for education in West Virginia,” Justice said at a briefing Tuesday.

“Now you may be wondering what in the world can that possibly be about — a state of emergency for education. We have to find a way to bypass this FAFSA requirement that will provide eligibility to our high school kids and everything in regard to their scholarships, especially Promise and on and on and on.”

Justice described a 40% decline in FAFSA completion for West Virginia high school students.

“The reason for that is, our kids don’t know what to do,” Justice said, blaming federal officials. “A lot of kids are sitting on the sidelines wondering not if — when the funding can come, or whatever — they’re wondering ‘am I going to be able to go to college?’”

Justice indicated the emergency declaration would help with processing state financial aid.

West Virginia’s higher education chancellor, Sarah Armstrong Tucker, spoke at the briefing and encouraged students to continue applying for financial aid through FAFSA if they haven’t already. She said it could unlock vital financial support.

Tucker directed people to or suggested calling the financial aid hotline at 877-987-7664.

She said students who apply and qualify for West Virginia’s Promise scholarship by Sept.1 will receive an award of up to $5,500 for the coming academic year. If a student completed last year’s FAFSA and qualifies for the need-based higher education grant, Tucker said, they will receive the award of up to $3,400 for the fall semester.

If you do not have a previous FAFSA on file but are eligible for one of several programs through the West Virginia Department of Human Services, you can show your eligibility letter to a West Virginia college’s financial aid office to receive the higher education grant.

Those programs include the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Child Care Subsidy Program.

“To the students and families, I want you to know we have your back,” Tucker said. “We want you to know that if you qualify for Promise or the higher education grant, you will get that money for this fall regardless of your FAFSA status.”

In Congress, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has questioned U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about problems with the FAFSA. Capito displayed a chart showing that FAFSA completion is down 36% nationally among freshmen and down 40% for West Virginia high school students.

“We’ve got to be more aggressive here,” Capito said.

Cardona referred to ongoing efforts to improve.

“The form is now about 15 minutes,” Cardona said. “If a student in West Virginia applies today, by Friday the colleges are going to have the information.”

He continued, “To be very frank, I’ve been hearing students are getting their letters. Look, we’re on the same team here; we want to get as many students connected and I look forward to working with you to make sure we can do that in your state.”