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Filing of college financial aid forms by high school seniors is down 9 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Credit: Jill Barshay/The Hechinger Report

High school seniors are filling out more financial aid forms than they were in the midst of the pandemic autumn of 2020, when there were record high drops in completions. But as of Feb. 12, 2021, filings of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, were still down a whopping 9.4 percent from a year ago, which does not bode well for college going in the fall of 2021.

FAFSA filings remain especially depressed at high schools with higher concentrations of students of color, in rural areas and small towns and in low-income schools everywhere. 

“We’re clawing back some ground from where we were in November, but 9 percent is still a massive number,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the nonprofit National College Attainment Network, who tracks FAFSA completion rates every week. “We’ve made progress on getting more students of color and financially disadvantaged students to college. But given the trends we’ve seen, we risk backpedaling on that progress if we fail to help those kids find a post-secondary pathway now.”

FAFSA filings are seen as a leading indicator of future college enrollment because students need to fill out the form to obtain financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study jobs, important steps for most students in the college application process. More than half of the nation’s 3.8 million high school seniors typically fill out the form every year and even a 1 or 2 percentage point drop is considered a big change. Thus far, only 39 percent of the current high school class of 2021 has completed the FAFSA, adding up to roughly 150,000 fewer students than usual at this point in the college application cycle. 

Alarm bells sounded earlier in the fall of 2020 when 200,000 fewer first-time students enrolled at community colleges — a 21 percent drop in enrollment by freshmen. That was on the back of a much smaller 4 percent drop in FAFSA filings during the previous 2019-20 cycle. The current 9.4 percent drop in FAFSA filings is more than twice that size but much improved since November when FAFSA filings were down almost 17 percent.

FAFSA completion by seniors attending high schools where at least 40 percent are students of color was down almost 15 percent compared to a year earlier. That’s triple the almost 5 percent drop in financial aid form completions at largely white high schools. Source: FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, National College Attainment Network

FAFSA renewal rates are strong, up 8 percent through December 2020 compared to a year earlier. That’s a sign that students who are already in college will be able to continue to pay their tuition and stay enrolled. But the number of students who are filling out the FAFSA for the first time is sharply down, which suggests fewer new college students in the fall. 

“We’re worried about freshmen,” said Oded Gurantz, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Missouri, who has studied the sharp drop in FAFSA filings since COVID hit in March. “After COVID, some of them will clearly come back. But a lot of those students will not. They’ll be in a job. They’ll have family responsibilities. It becomes much harder for them to go back to college as a working adult than it does right out of high school.”

Gurantz’s study was published in Educational Researcher in February 2021. It documented the sharp decline in FAFSA completions in California after COVID hit, especially in low-income, as well as Black and Latino neighborhoods. “We’re seeing this really big drop in potential freshmen which is very different than what we see in any prior research study,” said Gurantz.

More high school seniors are expected to fill out FAFSAs as state deadlines approach. For example, many of California’s grant programs require a FAFSA submission to be postmarked by March 2. But it is unclear how much of the current deficit can be offset.

“I’m not optimistic,” said Gurantz. “There’s a little bit more time to see what’s happening with these students and see where it’s ultimately going to play out.. But no, it does not look good.”

Two-year community colleges have been most affected because they tend to serve lower income students.  

As of Feb. 12, 2021, FAFSA filings by seniors at low-income high schools across the nation were 12 percent lower than they were a year ago in February, before the pandemic hit. (A low- income high school is defined as one where more than 40 percent of the students come from low-income families.) 

FAFSA completion by seniors attending high schools where at least 40 percent are students of color was down 15 percent over the same time period; 100,000 fewer students at these schools filled out financial aid forms than they had in February 2020. That drop in FAFSA completions is triple the 5 percent drop at largely white high schools.

Small towns and rural areas have also experienced steep FAFSA declines, down 12 to 14 percent. By contrast, FAFSA completions by suburban high schools were down half as much, only 7 percent. 

“Broadband connectivity is a problem,” said DeBaun of the National College Attainment Network. “School is the place where students have internet access. When we disconnect students from schools, we also disconnect students from the FAFSA.”

Filling out the FAFSA can be one of the most time-consuming steps in the college application process. Experts have estimated that it can take 10 hours or more to fill it out the first time. Many college access programs that can help with this process aren’t able to see students in person during the pandemic. In small towns, there are fewer community organizations to help students with financial aid forms. 

“There’s a lot of work to do to get students to school in the fall,” said DeBaun. “You can’t just flip a switch and get them back on a college pathway. These students need additional advising. If we don’t support them now, there’s no guarantee that they will hop back into a college path over the summer.”

This story about financial aid forms was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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