Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, in order to tap into the federal student loan program, as well as many types of state and institutional financial aid packages. It’s considered one of the most important steps in helping students access higher education.(fizkes/Getty Images)
The graduating high school class of 2021 has completed nearly 5% fewer applications for federal student aid than the previous class, marking a loss of 270,000 applications since just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new analysis of federal data by the National College Attainment Network.
“To see a year over year decline of nearly 5% is really disheartening,” says Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the organization. “It’s not just the number, it’s what the number represents. And that is nearly 100,000 fewer students compared to last year who have completed a key college going milestone.”
Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, in order to tap into the federal student loan program, as well as many types of state and institutional financial aid packages. It’s considered one of the most important steps in helping students access higher education.
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By June 30 of last year, the class of 2020 had about 81,000 fewer FAFSA completions than the class of 2019. The class of 2021 had about 190,000 fewer FAFSA completions compared to 2019.
The drop in application rates impacted low-income students and students of color the hardest.
Among high schools that enroll the largest proportions of low-income students, FAFSA completions declined 6.5% compared to 3.7% for high schools that enroll more upper- and middle-class students. And for schools where Black and Hispanic students account for more than 50% of the student body, the decline was 8.1% compared to 2.2% in schools with fewer Black and Hispanic students.
In total, an estimated 53.3% of the class of 2021 completed a FAFSA by July 2.
DeBaun says that represents about a quarter of a million fewer seniors completing the form than higher education experts expected – almost entirely as a result of the pandemic. The vast majority of high school students learned remotely last year, nearly eliminating their already limited college and career counseling services, especially among low-income students and students of color.
The figures mirror the dramatic drop-off of students enrolling in college over the last two years and are alarming some higher education policy experts who warn it may get even worse.
“When we look at the fall 2020 enrollment figures,” DeBaun says, “those enrollment figures are very bad, and they came on the heels of a smaller FAFSA completion decrease than what we’re staring at right now.”
Data from the National Student Clearinghouse show college undergraduate enrollment rates fell 4.9% in spring 2021 as a result of COVID-19, and significantly steeper for students of color and low-income students. Enrollment declines have been sharpest at community colleges, which experienced a 9.5% decrease among the already resource-constrained sector.
“I hope it won’t be as severe as fall of 2020, but it may be, and it may be worse,” he says. “Conditions on college campuses will look a lot more normal this fall, but if students haven’t completed one of the college-going milestones ahead of time it doesn’t mean that they will just all of a sudden one day show up on a college campus.”
Perhaps most concerning, the drop in completed applications comes in the wake of major efforts to drive up the numbers of students applying for the federal aid, especially among low-income students and students of color. Some of those efforts include Congress shortening and simplifying the application itself and state and district decisions to dedicate school days to helping high school students complete the form.
DeBaun says he does expect FAFSA application rates to tick back up next year, as the vast majority of schools plan to reopen for in-person learning full time, five days a week – though the figures may not be as robust as higher education policymakers would like to see.
“I think when we compare the class of 2022 to 2019, we will probably still see a small dip in FAFSA completion for next year’s graduating class,” he says. “But with so many schools returning to in-person instruction, that means that students will also have access to counselors, teachers, community-based organization personnel, all the adults in their lives who are helping them get on post-secondary pathways.”
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