NEW YORK — The number of high school seniors applying for U.S. federal college aid plunged in the weeks following the sudden closure of school buildings this spring — a time when students were cut off from school counselors, and families hit with financial setbacks were reconsidering plans for higher education.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, the number of new applications fell by nearly half compared to last year’s levels, fueled by a precipitous decline among students at low-income schools, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data. The numbers have risen as states and schools have launched campaigns urging students to apply for aid, but they remain down overall from last year.
It’s raising alarms among education officials who say thousands of students may be opting to delay or forgo college, with potentially dire consequences for their job prospects and future earnings.
"The consequences are that kids are going directly into the workforce. They’re closing the door on post-high school learning,” said David Nieslanik, principal of Southridge High School in Beaverton, Oregon, where he saw only more affluent students file for aid once instruction moved online.
The FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is required for students to be eligible for federal Pell grants and student loans. It’s also often a requirement for state aid. Students who complete the form are far more likely to enroll in college, studies have found, and those who receive aid are more likely to stay in college.
In the four weeks starting March 13, the number of completed applications was down 45% compared to the same period the year before, according to the AP analysis. It was sharpest at Title I schools, a federal designation for public schools that have larger shares of low-income students, which saw a 52% decrease, compared to a 39% slide at other public schools.
Overall, applications were down by 70,000 as of June 19, representing a 3.7% drop for the entire application cycle.
Even before the pandemic, some states had been expecting to see decreases as demographic shifts result in fewer high school seniors, and plenty of individual schools saw filings hold steady or increase. However, as the coronavirus started to spread, every state saw numbers slide compared to last year’s levels, even states that had more high school seniors this year.
Schools say the pandemic contributed to the slide in several ways. Separated from their schools, students lost touch with counselors who typically guide them through the complex financial aid process. Families without reliable internet access struggled to complete the online form. And amid economic turmoil, some students took jobs and put college plans on hold.
The pandemic's timing worsened its impact on low-income students, experts say: While more affluent students typically submit the FAFSA earlier in the application cycle, low-income students are more likely to wait until March or April, the time when schools were shutting down.
Gregory Cole, principal of the Mojave High School in North Las Vegas, Nevada, said it came at “the very worst time.”
Many parents lost jobs as the region’s gaming industry shut down, and some students took jobs in groceries or fast food chains. Compounding the problem, many students come from families that had never filed the form, which requires a range of tax and Social Security records.
“We’re the lifeline for a lot of our kids,” Cole said. “Without us there to help them through the process, I think it’s inevitable that some of them are going to fall through the cracks.”
Once schools closed, counselors could no longer pull students into their offices to talk, or invite families to school to navigate the FAFSA. Instead, schools were left sending emails that often went unanswered, or they relied on unwieldy video chats to help families with paperwork.
There’s hope that the decrease is partly tied to students who plan to attend community colleges and are waiting to file until closer to those schools' deadlines, which are often later, said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Still, he worries that the drop-off may be more than a “temporary blip."
“During recessions, traditionally more people go back to school to retool. But this just feels very different because of the pandemic, the illness, the job loss, and then the quarantines that might reappear this year,” he said. “All of this says to me, there are a lot of things to be worried about.”
Education officials are encouraging students to apply over the summer, even if only to see how much financial aid they could receive. North Carolina recently launched a “FAFSA Frenzy” campaign, while Kentucky is hosting “FAFSA Fridays” urging students to apply.
Although deadlines for some state scholarships have passed, students can still apply for federal aid for the 2020-21 school year through June 2021.
In Louisiana, one of several states where students are required to file the FAFSA in order to graduate from high school, state officials waived that rule because of the pandemic. But state education officials are still calling and texting students in districts with lower completion rates.
As of June 19, applications among the state's low-income students were down by nearly 9%.
“We are not going to stop,” said Sujuan Boutté, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance. “We’ve got to be that rock that says, ‘I do understand that there’s a lot of uncertainty, but this is a ticket to your future and you don’t want to put that on hold.’”
Officials in Kentucky say they’re working hard but aren’t optimistic they’ll catch up with last year’s numbers. Even if they do, they worry that many students who filed will ultimately not enroll in college.
“We may reach the same percentage, but I’m not optimistic that all of those students will be going to college,” said Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. “If I’m wrong about this, I will be shouting hallelujah.”