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The 4-6 week FAFSA delay comes at a crucial time for high school seniors

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A college education can make dreams come true.

AGUSTIN MIGUEL: For me, my ideal would be physical therapy.

NADWORNY: That's Agustin Miguel, a senior at Somerville High School in Somerville, Mass. He's applied to a number of schools.

MIGUEL: University of Southern California, Duke University - applied to Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University.

NADWORNY: Agustin Miguel is like 17 million other students who've used the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, this year, waiting to hear back from colleges with crucial aid offers - a wait that's gotten a bit longer. Last Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it won't be sending students' data from FAFSA to colleges and universities until the first half of March. That's in order to fix a calculation error they made in the latest version of the form. A few days ago, I talked with Agustin and his mom, Ana, who spoke through an interpreter, about just how much the cost of college determines where he will go.

MIGUEL: Money is 100% the deciding factor. Like, it's cheaper for students to go to a college that's in their state, as well as being able to afford transportation, being able to afford living there. And the cost - money is going to play a huge factor in all this.

NADWORNY: Have you talked with your mom about this?

MIGUEL: Yeah, no, I did speak with my mother about this. It's a pretty tough conversation, considering the fact that she's the only one really providing money for the family.

NADWORNY: Ana, how is your family thinking about the cost of college for Agustin?

ANA: (Speaking Spanish).

AINSLEY ROBLES: Thinking about finances and opportunities and the resources needed to pay are definitely top of mind. And like any mother, she really wants her, you know, child to go to school.

NADWORNY: Agustin, do you have a sense of how you're going to make the decision?

MIGUEL: Once I do receive an offer, I'm going to have to go through all of my colleges, look at all of them, look at how much I'm going to receive, and then I'm going to have to really decide, like, really calculate what's the best decision for me financially in order for me to continue going to that school without having to really worry about how I'm going to be able to pay off all of this debt.

NADWORNY: Have you and your mom talked about how much money is too much to pay, or what your threshold would be for loans? Have you had conversations about real numbers here?

MIGUEL: No, but we have talked about, like, a range of numbers. So if - anything above 30 to 40,000 is kind of a lot for, like, a year for a school.

NADWORNY: For Ana, how are you dealing with this process? It's so complicated. And how has it been going for you as the mom?

ANA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROBLES: It's definitely a complicated process, and even more so given that she doesn't speak English super well, so she's really relied on her son to sort of explain things to her. And even, you know, as he's translating sort of complex ideas or words in English, and he's translating them into Spanish - you know, they've been making it work.

ANA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROBLES: Mom was just saying how happy and proud she was of her son taking on this really complex process and wanting to navigate the process with him, but feeling really happy for him and hopeful that he can navigate it. But he is the last child and the first one to sort of go through the process in and of itself.

NADWORNY: Are you surprised by anything your mom is saying?

MIGUEL: No, not at all. This is all the things we discussed about in terms of college. It's not one of my favorite topics to discuss with my mom, but it's definitely one of the most important ones I have to talk to her about, just for the simple fact that I know our financial situation, and I know how difficult it is in order to move on with this chapter in my life.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

MIGUEL: So it's really, really important for me.

NADWORNY: That's high school senior Agustin Miguel and his mother, Ana, one of the estimated 17 million students waiting, and waiting now a little bit longer, to hear back from colleges and universities about financial aid. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

MIGUEL: Thank you so much. Thank you for this opportunity.

ANA: Gracias.

NADWORNY: And we also want to thank Ainsley Robles (ph) for helping us with this conversation and translating. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.