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FAFSA applications drop by 10% for first-time students

We will be feeling the effects of the pandemic for years. The latest FAFSA completion data show a major drop in the number of completed FAFSA applications by high school seniors. The drop is most pronounced for minority and low-income students. This tracks a trend that analysts noted last year.

Without doubt, the driver is the pandemic. Low-income high school seniors often have no one in their households who holds a college degree. In a “normal” year, high schools would be informing students about the FAFSA, and even helping them file their FAFSA applications. This year, not so much.

It’s not that high schools aren’t trying, but filling out the FAFSA is time-consuming. Ordinarily, school districts would devote at least some time to helping students prepare for their next educational steps. That preparation includes taking college admissions tests, filling out applications, and filing the FAFSA.

The best thing I can say about the FAFSA is that it is neither complicated nor easy. First, successful FAFSA applications require cooperation from both parents and students. Parents have their section of the form to fill out, and students file the other part of the form. The application isn’t complete until both parts – and all documentation – are on file.

Second, the FAFSA requires a lot of data input. Household income, asset values, savings, parents’ social security numbers, students’ social security numbers, income tax filing data, etc. And, since you’re dealing with a government agency, working through the form is a little convoluted. In some areas, the FAFSA has deadlines. If the student misses them, they may be shut out of aid for the next school year. It’s easy to understand why some students (or parents) don’t complete the financial aid process.

The risk of not completing FAFSA Applications

But there are consequences to not completing FAFSA applications, not the least of which is that the student isn’t financial-aid eligible. Students who don’t know about the FAFSA or can’t fill it out at home tend to lose out. Additionally, the FAFSA is online. If a student doesn’t have regular access to a computer or an Internet connection, electronically filling out the FAFSA may be impossible.

Unless colleges (and more specifically, community colleges) make a concerted effort to get first-time applicants to fill out the FAFSA, they’ll pay a price in the Fall. Colleges may need to work with school districts to identify students who have not yet filled out and submitted the form. Then, offering FAFSA completion assistance, workshops, webinars, videos or something else may help. But colleges and universities must make a concerted effort to locate low-income students (or would-be students) during the filing season. If they do not, inaction may change the composition of the student body for years to come.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education, via Flickr