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California extends student financial aid deadline to May 2

Prospective+college+applicants+and+family+members+attend+a+financial+aid+information+workshop+at+College+Information+Day+at+UC+Berkeley+on+Oct.+14%2C+2023.+Photo+by+Juliana+Yamada+for+CalMatters
Prospective college applicants and family members attend a financial aid information workshop at College Information Day at UC Berkeley on Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Juliana Yamada for CalMatters

Students seeking state financial aid now have an extra month to beat a California deadline — after lawmakers fast-tracked their response to a federal glitch that blocked thousands of current and aspiring undergraduates from completing the federal application necessary to get that state aid. The problem particularly affected students who are citizens but whose parents are not.

Assembly Bill 1887 cleared the Assembly unanimously March 19 and sailed through the Senate without opposition March 21 — just before the Legislature began a weeklong recess.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, without surprise, signed it March 25. All told, the proposal went from bill to legislation in less than two weeks — a rapid pace by Sacramento standards.

Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Democrat from Corona and chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, rushed the bill to give affected California students additional time to complete the federal application, known as the FAFSA, and access more than $3 billion in state aid. The new law moves the current deadline from April 2 to May 2 and goes into effect immediately.

“Clearly our students need our help,” said Cervantes during a bill hearing last week. “They need more time to complete the FAFSA, making their dreams of achieving higher education more affordable and accessible, and it’s our duty to ensure that we pass this legislation.”

California’s public colleges and universities urged lawmakers to extend the deadline in early March. Analysts for the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the governor’s Department of Finance endorsed the move. The bill emerged days later.

Cervantes wrote the bill after a technology mishap prevented U.S. citizens from completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid because their parents don’t have a Social Security number. It’s a problem that emerged this year with a revised application and has generated a high degree of worry among the higher education financial aid officers in California and nationally.

The cause of the tech glitch: The federal online application wouldn’t allow those parents to enter their financial information. Without those details, a student can’t finalize their application — and can’t apply for state financial aid.

“The Legislature can highlight, double down on how unacceptable it is that certain U.S. citizens cannot submit a FAFSA,” said Gina Browne, a senior official with the California Community Colleges system, at a Senate hearing this month, “and I’m personally offended by it.”

The education department said it fixed some of the problems this month but cautioned there are other errors blocking some students from finishing their applications. Those include instances in which a parent’s — or spouse’s — name doesn’t totally match the forms both the parent and student must complete.

The scale of the problem is hard to gauge. More than 100,000 California students last year submitted a federal aid application without their parents’ Social Security numbers. It’s not clear how many of those had parents who lacked a number or whether they chose to not share one with the government. Nationally, about 2% of applicants had at least one parent without a Social Security number in 2024, U.S. Department of Education officials said.

Estimates show that the number of California high school seniors submitting the FAFSA is well below levels compared to this point in time last year — a decline of 43% as of March 8, according to the nonprofit National College Attainment Network.

For many onlookers, these barriers to the application are deeply ironic. The new FAFSA application was created to reduce the time it took students to apply for aid by cutting down on the number of questions. Another change allowed for more students to access the federal Pell grant, the country’s marquee financial aid tool for low-income families. But those changes not only left thousands of students unable to apply, it delayed by months when the federal government would send schools information necessary to create individual financial aid packages for their students.

“I have to say this has been the most disruptive event in my 25-year career in financial aid,” said Shawn Brick, director of financial aid at the University of California, at a legislative hearing last week.

The university plans to issue financial aid offers to students by mid-April, a month later than usual. Both the UC and California State University have extended their deadlines for students to commit to enrolling to their campuses by at least two weeks — May 15 — so that new undergraduates can compare their financial aid packages from the schools that admitted them.

“If any of these timelines slip, we will revisit the May 15 deadline,” Brick told lawmakers.

But pushing back that registration deadline has its own pitfalls, he added, as students face a compressed timeline for campus orientation and finding housing before fall term begins.

Brick, of the UC, said last week that campuses have received about 5% of the student FAFSA information from the federal government they’d normally receive around this time, but in a glimmer of good news, the pace has quickened significantly.

Cal Poly Pomona, a Cal State, usually receives 43,000 student financial aid records from the federal government at this point in the process — but received “barely 20% of the records we would normally have,” said Jeanette Phillips, executive director of financial aid at the campus.

“We are not able to package financial aid for our students yet and can’t provide any guidance. We can’t alleviate their fears,” Phillips added. “They need to know their financial aid packages as soon as possible to make decisions about where to attend college or even if they can afford to attend college.”

But delaying the state deadline by a month this year may not address other issues with the federal application that could emerge in 2025, said Jake Brymner, a senior official with the California Student Aid Commission.

Parents without Social Security numbers now have to confirm their identities to complete the FAFSA, which may include uploading identifying documents.

“Depending on the national political environment,” students “may have some additional concern about sharing family members’ information with a federal agency as they try to seek financial aid,” Brymner said.

Brymner’s implication is that families may worry if Donald Trump wins the presidential election this year. The Republican nominee reportedly plans a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, replete with large camps, if he returns to the White House.

The commission has explored using another application for state financial aid — currently reserved for undocumented students — to bypass the federal technical glitches this year affecting U.S. citizens. The state doesn’t share information on that application with the federal government.

But that approach isn’t without its own issues. Students would still need to complete the FAFSA for federal aid, which can include more than $7,000 in annual grants plus access to lower-interest loans that come with various protections if students are unable to repay them down the line.

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