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Many Valley students rely on financial aid for college. Here’s how a new application makes the process easier

Teacher Amy Verrinder at El Capitan High in Merced, Calif. helps a student in her class.
Rachel Livinal
Teacher Amy Verrinder at El Capitan High in Merced, Calif. helps a student in her class.

MERCED, Calif. — Students at El Capitan High School in Merced were among those who opened up a new financial aid application this month deemed the “Better FAFSA” released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Completing the FAFSA has been vital for families sending students off to college since its establishment in 1992 because it determines whether students qualify for financial aid – and what that help could look like.

Amy Verrinder, a teacher at El Capitan who teaches the college preparation class known as “AVID,” says many of her students are low income. That, she says, makes students reliant on financial aid to attend college.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates those who complete the FAFSA are more likely to enroll in college. According to data provided by the Federal Student Aid office, 1,118 students from Merced completed the FAFSA last year. The data shows 323 were from El Capitan, where Verrinder teaches.

The same office reports the majority of high school graduates in the Central Valley completed the FAFSA through December. Many school districts reported having a per-family median income below $40,000.

Federal Student Aid

Changes in the form

Several changes were rolled out with the Better FAFSA that officials say will ease the stress associated with the application.

Prior to the changes, students would fill out the form with their parents using previous years’ tax information. But under the new form, parents won’t need to dig up their information because the U.S. Department of Education partnered with the IRS to pre-populate that data into the form.

Verrinder says this helps get most of the hard work done inside the classroom, rather than at home.

“When it involves a lot of paper trail and personal documents that can only be found at their homes, that's very hard for me to help them with,” Verrinder says. “But when it's automated like this, I can sit down and help them here on campus. So I feel a little bit less helpless than I did last year.”

Chloe Dingeldein, 16, says she completed the form in about 20 minutes because of the new features, even though she sat at home with her dad and his tax documents to complete it.

Dingeldein, however, was upset while waiting for the form because it was released three months later than usual. Dingeldein said she heard from fellow students there were technological difficulties with the form when it was first rolled out.

When the form was released in December, the California Student Aid commission said the program went through a “soft-launch” period where families could access the form periodically and become familiar with it.

However, some applicants reported the website crashed or forced them to perform an action more than once for it to register. NPR reported Tuesday the U.S. Department of Education has now opened the application to everyone and resolved issues with the website.

But eligibility questions remain.

Besides the prepopulation tool, the new release eligibility for the Pell Grant – a grant awarded to students with financial need – was expected to expand.

NPR reported the Department of Education, however, did not account for inflation in its calculations for financial aid, which could reduce the amount of aid students receive, and may even rule them out for receiving any Pell Grant money.

Regardless of the hiccups, Verrinder says she’s ready to face the application head on because it’s something that her students need, regardless of their financial status.

“The more negative I am about the new FAFSA, the more negative my students are going to be about it,” Verrinder says. “This is what's going to get them the money to go to school. So my only feeling about it is ‘let's figure it out.’”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.