The number of high school seniors filling out financial aid applications is down this year, and student advocates suspect an online security upgrade is to blame.

Although students have until the summer to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), turning in the form early increases the chances of qualifying for more grants and scholarships because some states award aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. The government and colleges use the FAFSA to determine need-based and some merit-based financial aid, making completion of the form critical for students who need help paying for school.

Yet a month after the FAFSA went live in January, completions among high school seniors nationwide were down seven percent and submissions were off two percent compared to the previous year, according to data from the Department of Education. The numbers are starting to improve as the decline in completions has narrowed to four percent and submissions have flattened as of March 4.

Still, college counselors say high school students are having a harder time finishing their applications because of changes the federal government made to the process last year. They say the biggest problem is that families must now create an “FSA ID,” instead of using a four-digit PIN for online access to the FAFSA.

Setting up the new log-in takes longer than before, requiring both students and parents to establish IDs by, among other things, providing social security numbers and five security questions. Students have to write two of the questions themselves, come up with a significant date that cannot be their birthday, and if they forget the password, they must answer three of the questions correctly. Even then, counselors say it could take 30 minutes before students can get back into the system.

“Students forget what they answered, their parents forget what they answered, and they get locked out,” said Nelson Greene, program manager at the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP), which sponsors a citywide network of advisers who help students with college admissions and financial aid. “Some of our parents are not computer savvy and are having a hard time.”

Students are also running into problems with the email address they use to sign up for online access. Although an email address isn’t needed to create an ID, counselors say it makes the process much easier, but there are consequences.

If students use their high school email address, they risk losing access upon graduation, making it difficult to fill out the FAFSA once they get to college. Using a personal email address can also be a hassle because many schools, like Flagstaff High School in Arizona, ban students from accessing outside accounts on campus. Katherine Pastor, a counselor at Flagstaff, said one of the biggest frustrations for students at her school is needing to check email to get a verification code for the ID. If students don’t have a smartphone to access their personal accounts, then they have trouble getting the information they need, she said.

“It’s taken our students anywhere from 20 to 25 minutes to get through that little bit of the process. Before it took no more than 10 minutes to create the PIN,” Pastor said. Flagstaff High School carves out time during the school day to make sure seniors fill out the FAFSA. “It’s slowing down our process in the classroom. And because it is more complicated it’s taking a lot more communication and collaboration to get parents to fill out their part.”

Department of Education officials say they are aware of the problems students are encountering, and encourage them to visit the website for help.

“As with any new online log-in system, we know there will be users who have difficulty,” said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the department. “Cybersecurity has changed significantly since 1998, so it was critical that we updated the security measures.”

Replacing the PIN, according to the department, reduces opportunities for fraud and abuse. Since the agency disburses about $150 billion in federal student aid a year to more than 40 million people, officials say they are trying to protect sensitive financial information. Despite the hiccups in the system, nearly 28 million users have created an FSA ID since it launched.

Still, Greene of DC-CAP said families are making costly mistakes out of frustration over the new FAFSA ID. He is noticing more families submitting the form online without the electronic signature after battling with the new system, but that could delay the time it takes for students to receive a financial aid award letter.

“When they bypass using the ID for the electronic signature, they get four to six documents they have to sign and mail it back in. That takes four to six weeks to process and delays the award letter,” he said.

If students are having a hard time getting through the online process, they could complete a paper FAFSA to avoid the new ID. But that would mean manually filling out over a 100 questions on the form and giving up the convenience of having tax information imported from the Internal Revenue Services.

“It’s better to set up your ID and go through your FAFSA all at once. If you do the process straight through, when you get to the end of the process you’re able to submit it and confirm your FSA ID account later on the back end, and that counts as a fully submitted FAFSA,” said Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network. “That’s what we’re recommending now so they don’t get caught up in this 30-minute wait.”

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