A worrying trend this fall: decline in FAFSA applications

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In the middle of our 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 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.”

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 ineligible 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.

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.

For the 2021-2022 school year, the FAFSA application cycle that opened Oct. 1 ends 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 against 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.”

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 submits 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.”