FAFSA is blocking students with undocumented parents from completing their applications
More than 90,000 college students in Arizona have at least one undocumented parent, and sweeping changes to federal student aid policy are leaving many of them unable to complete applications that are critical to their ability to pay for school.
The rollout of the 2024-2025 Free Application for Federal Student Aid has been plagued with delays and mistakes as the U.S. Department of Education enacts updates to make the form easier to fill out and increase the number of students who can access federal help.
The application determines a student’s income eligibility for a bevy of grants, scholarships, loans and work-study programs. For many students, it can mean the difference between enrolling in college or deciding not to.
Nineteen-year-old Xiomara Flores was looking forward to becoming an Arizona State Sun Devil in the fall and beginning work on a biomedical sciences or business degree, with designs on a career either as a physician’s assistant or in business management.
But when it came time to fill out her FAFSA application, she hit a wall: The teen’s parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and the new FAFSA form has so far been unable to accept the income information of parents who don’t have a legal immigration status. That information is necessary to complete the application, leaving Flores and others like her at a standstill, worried about their financial aid prospects.
Flores said it’s disheartening to qualify in every other way, but consistently face obstacles simply because her parents aren’t citizens.
“It feels like a setback,” she said. “You feel like you’re almost there to the finish line, but there’s always just that one thing that’s stopping you. And it seems to always be that one thing.”
The inability of parents without social security numbers to help their children fill out the FAFSA form has been an issue since at least the first week of January, when the Department of Education added the complaint to its list of unresolved problems. A spokesperson for the department told the Arizona Mirror that the agency is working to fix the glitch, and advised students to get as much done ahead of time as possible, including creating an FSA ID for their parents to log into the application so that, when a solution is developed, finishing the process can be quicker.
On Jan. 30, the department announced that issues with the new form would result in a significant delay for all applicants. Student income eligibility data won’t arrive at universities and colleges until March, forcing Arizona’s three public universities to push their FAFSA submission deadlines to May.
“Once the Department of Education shares your FAFSA data with us, ASU, NAU and UArizona teams will work promptly to provide financial aid information as soon as possible so that students and their families can have a clear understanding of their cost of attendance and financial assistance opportunities,” the schools wrote in a joint statement.
Originally, the FAFSA priority deadline for Arizona State University was March 1, and both Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona had set theirs at April 1. Those deadlines help universities determine how much financial aid students can receive. And key scholarships, like the Arizona Promise Program, which helps cover the leftover costs for Pell Grant recipients (awarded by the federal government to low income students who fill out the FAFSA application), also structure their timelines around the release of FAFSA eligibility information.
But while delays can be responded to by adjusting deadlines, the issue students with immigrant parents are dealing with is more complicated to address. Applicants without that problem are able to complete and submit their FAFSA forms ahead of time. Latino education groups are sounding the alarm on behalf of second-generation Arizonans, worried that they’ll be left behind.
José Patiño, the vice president of education and external affairs at Aliento, an advocacy organization focused on undocumented youth, said that teachers, students and counselors have reached out with concerns. Aliento, in turn, has reached out to universities and the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities.
“They instructed me that they know the issue is happening and are trying to figure it out internally, and they’re sensitive to the issue,” Patiño said. “But saying that to the students and parents doesn’t comfort them.”
Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the Board of Regents, told the Mirror it anticipates adding a discussion of whether to move application and financial aid deadlines to the agenda for its Feb. 22 meeting.
Patiño noted that revisions made to FAFSA, some of which were intended to validate the identities of applicants, have changed the form in ways that jeopardize the applications of students with mixed status families. Before, students with one undocumented parent and one parent with citizenship status could resolve difficulties by having just the latter parent fill out and sign the form. And students with two immigrant parents could mail their application with supporting documentation to verify the identities of their parents.
Neither is an option anymore.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Patiño said. “Before, there were ways to work around to support those with mixed status families to be able to complete the FAFSA. Now, there isn’t.”
Aliento and other education advocacy organizations fear they might have to fill in the gaps with their own scholarships by courting donations from foundations and philanthropists. But that would prove near impossible, considering the number of students in need and the high costs.
“What we’re talking about is tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds,” he said. “That’s just a lot of money for a foundation to give in scholarships. They wouldn’t be able to.”
But if the problem doesn’t get resolved soon, the threat of not having the resources to pay for college could convince some students to give up on higher education. Most students from mixed status families simply don’t have the means to continue their education without help, Patiño said.
“Without these scholarships, a lot of them are not going to be able to enroll. The families that we work with, they don’t have 20- or 15- disposable thousand dollars that they can just pay for a year for their students,” he said.
Emely Saenz Gomez is one year out from graduating with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. She should be breathing a sigh of relief, but instead she’s been stressed out for weeks. She and her parents, who were both born in Mexico, have reached out to the FAFSA helpline multiple times, but all they’ve been told is to keep waiting because there’s no solution yet.
Saenz Gomez, who depends on multiple needs-based scholarships to pay her tuition, said she and her parents have been talking about reaching out to family members for loans if it doesn’t work out. Without some kind of financial support, she said, college just isn’t doable.
“College is very expensive,” she lamented. “I wouldn’t be able to pay out of pocket.”