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In the middle of the country’s current economic and health crisis, there’s a disturbing trend in higher education: Fewer high school seniors are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is typically the first step in receiving federal and state grants, federal loans and institutional aid for college.

The FAFSA application window opened on Oct. 1, and as of Oct. 23, about 492,000 FAFSA completions had been filed from the high school class of 2021 – 16 percent fewer completions than this time last year for the class of 2020, according to the National College Attainment Network.

There are several reasons for the drop, said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN.

“You have so many families and students and communities who are facing housing insecurity, food insecurity, lack of access to technological infrastructure that would help them get into the classroom,” DeBaun said. “FAFSA completion is just kind of falling down the list of priorities for a lot of students and families.”

“With that step [filling out a FAFSA] not happening, I do worry that not as many particularly low-income and minority students are thinking that’s an option for them.”

Julie Peller, executive director. Higher Learning Advocates

There was an 18.5-percent decrease in the number of FAFSA completions among high school seniors at Title 1-eligible schools, which are schools that qualify for additional aid from the federal government because at least 40 percent of students are from low-income families. The decrease was 14 percent among students at schools that are not eligible for Title 1funds.

Schools are not prioritizing helping students with the FAFSA as much as they usually would because delivering basic instruction has become enough of a challenge, DeBaun said. Plus, the FAFSA completion nights that schools and other organizations used to host in person, where many families could receive help at the same time, are now mostly virtual and one-on-one. This process is much slower, DeBaun said.

Related: More students are taking out private loans as college costs rise

Also, higher education may look less appealing than it has in past years.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty about what college is going to look like next fall,” said DeBaun, noting that many families and students are unsure if they will be able to pay for college and if they’ll be able to go to campus.

Some organizations are getting creative with how they provide FAFSA support during the pandemic.

In Mississippi, a group called Get2College is experimenting with drive-in FAFSA events to give families in-person help at a social distance. Credit: Get2College

In Mississippi, Get2College, which provides free college counseling services throughout the state, hosted two socially distanced FAFSA events in October. For the first, families received drive-through FAFSA support outside of Madison Shannon Palmer High School in Marks, Miss.

“Parents would drive up in their cars and roll down their windows, and we would roll a stand with a computer monitor up to their car,” said Ann Hendrick, director of Get2College.  “And then we were sitting probably 15 feet away at a table completing their FAFSA.”

For the second event, rain forced everyone inside, and Get2College found a new way to set up connections from a distance.

“The tables were 12 feet long, and we sat 12 feet apart and had masks and face shields and gloves,” Hendrick said.

But the personal protective equipment made it difficult to hear, and no one wants to loudly say social security numbers and dates of birth with too many people in the room, she said.

Get2College offers other FAFSA events and one-on-one guidance on Zoom, and plans to continue having outside events as well. 

Related: Some experts have a new idea to help students afford college: more federal loans

For the 2021-2022 school year, the FAFSA application cycle that opened on Oct. 1 ends on June 30. Submitting a FAFSA early has its benefits, while waiting to submit can have long-lasting consequences.

“State aid – and many states rely on FAFSA completion – is a lot of times first come, first served, even for eligible students,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization that advocates to remove systemic barriers in postsecondary education. “They have a set amount of money, and when those funds are depleted, even if a student is eligible based on their income, there are no funds to provide.”

“FAFSA completion is just kind of falling down the list of priorities for a lot of students and families.”

Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation, National College Attainment Network

With some federal aid programs, a late FAFSA submission could also be problematic. For the Federal Work-Study program, for example, colleges and universities receive a set amount of aid to employ students. If an eligible student submitted the FAFSA after the work-study allotments have already been designated, that student would miss out.

In addition to the decrease of FAFSA completions from low-income high school seniors, the NCAN data also revealed a sharp decline among minority students. Schools that had a high minority enrollment saw a 20 percent decline in FAFSA completions, but schools with a low minority enrollment saw a 13 percent decline.

These low FAFSA completion rates could foreshadow what college classes will look like next fall.

“We’ve long looked at FAFSA completion as an indicator for fall enrollment for the interest of individuals taking that first step to paying for college,” Peller said. “With that step not happening, I do worry that not as many particularly low-income and minority students are thinking that’s an option for them.”

This story about completing FAFSA was produced by by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

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