As economic turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic continues, colleges and universities face yet another year of lower completion rates for federal financial aid among high school seniors.
This trend may be head-scratching for some, but experts are concerned that stressors related to COVID-19 are taking the focus off of time-sensitive financial aid deadlines, or that prospective students have chosen not to attend college altogether.
As of Oct. 22, the number of completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, known as the FAFSA, is down about 10% nationally for the high school class of 2022, according to an analysis by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. The rate of completion decreased more significantly at high-minority high schools – those with at least 40% Black and Hispanic student enrollment – with about 13% fewer FAFSAs completed compared to this time last year.
"What we are seeing here in consecutive years is snowballing declines in FAFSA completion among high school seniors," says Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN. "That's very discouraging and very alarming because we know about the close association between FAFSA completion and eventual college enrollment."
Richard Tench, a school counselor at Saint Albans High School in West Virginia and chair of the National School Counselor Association, says the decline in FAFSA completions may be caused by students choosing to go straight into the workforce, as well as financial uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that have made college seem out of reach for many families.
For fall 2021 thus far, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that undergraduate enrollment is about 3.2% below last year's level – a trend some experts worry may continue.
"Parents and students are really taking time to reflect," Tench says. "I think we are seeing more gap years so students can feel out what they want to do...There's this overall hesitancy. We are waiting to see what happens as our country recovers from COVID, as the job market begins to shift and to see if college prices will go up."
Katherine Pastor, a school counselor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona, says the college and financial aid support systems in place for high school seniors have been eliminated or made more challenging by the transition to online learning.
"Before, I could just pop into your class and have a quick conversation," Pastor says. "Now, I'm trying to find where you're at, get a Zoom link, ask the teacher to create a breakout room for us, and hope that the student knows how to share their screen with me so I can help them with where they're at in the application."
Counselors note barriers to providing financial aid counseling such as students' limited access to the internet and computers; technological frustrations; limitations of a video call to assist with tasks like locating the correct tax form in a pile of paperwork; and feelings of Zoom fatigue among counselors, parents and students alike.
There are benefits to these virtual options, however, like expanding access to financial aid support, "especially in rural parts of our country where travel is not always easy," Tench says.
Overcoming new obstacles to get free financial aid help
As high schools and colleges continue to embrace various learning models in the wake of the pandemic, counselors and financial aid officers have also adapted and created new supports for students.
St. Albans, for example, offered three financial aid in-person events for seniors in addition to virtual seminars this fall that discuss paying for college and state-specific scholarship programs.
Colleges are also providing hybrid ways to promote college financial aid resources.
After working with community partners to offer information sessions about the FAFSA last year, Sante Fe College in Florida revamped its website to include more resources and tips. Students can also sign up for an on-demand FAFSA webinar, which is a YouTube video that walks viewers through the application process.
Though students can walk into the financial aid office to ask questions, another option is to make a phone appointment. This has been a preference for most students due to its flexibility, according to Colin Benner, coordinator for client services in the financial aid office at SF College.
"I think virtual is going to remain part of our bag of tricks," he says. "We really just want to meet students where they are at and give them the information that they need. Whatever it is we need to do to provide them service, provide them support, make sure they are completing the FAFSA and make sure they are completing it correctly, we are going to do that."
Additionally, many states continue to offer FAFSA help in a virtual format through their departments of higher education. The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, for example, offers one-hour, one-on-one "FAFSA Friday" Zoom calls that allow students and families to work on the form from their personal device with live support from financial aid counselors.
Students can also take advantage of College Goal Sunday, also called FAFSA Day. Originating in Indiana more than 30 years ago, the initiative has since expanded nationally. It's an opportunity for free help applying for financial aid held either in person or online Sundays in the fall and spring. The dates vary by state.
Additionally, there is the online Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Help Center, or students can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243.
Some high schools have resumed offering fully in-person FAFSA resources that students and their families can access.
Teresa Peterson, head counselor at Pine View High School in Utah, says the school has already held one in-person FAFSA night this fall with around 50 students in attendance, on top of one-on-one meetings for families.
She recommends students reach out to their counselors to better understand all of the available financial aid-related resources.
"Our biggest fear is that these kids are not going to apply for it and then they are going to feel like they can't go on to that next level," Peterson says.
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