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Low-income students not enrolling two-year schools

The significance of October 1 cannot be overstated. That’s the day the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens. The problem is that most students don’t fill it out. Although filling out the form would likely mean scholarships and grants for the majority of community college students, that’s not what happens. The decline in FAFSA applications coincides with the drop in applications from low-income students.

Serving low-income students is right in the wheelhouse of the average community college. This should be a home run, but it’s not, especially during the pandemic. But what’s going on?

Low-income high school students typically have a lot of contact with their teachers and counselors. For students who are the first in their families to go to college, this contact is essential. These students have no college experience to draw on and no one in their family to turn to. It also helps these students navigate the confusing, time-dependent federal financial aid process.

Poor students also often lack the resources to attend (and succeed in) online classes. They may not know that their schools can help them acquire the tools they need to participate in online coursework.

So it comes as no surprise that community college enrollment during the pandemic, especially among low-income students, plummeted. It’s also not showing signs of a robust recovery this fall among disadvantaged students. Among existing “promise” programs, which pay for the cost of attendance for low-income students, enrollment fares no better.

FASFA trips up low-income students

It’s not just high school students that are having trouble. Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect students are facing an all-important deadline. Students accepted to the program had the option to delay the start of their coursework until Fall 2021. As of now, less than half of program applicants accepted into the program have taken the one critical step: filling out the FAFSA. Without this form, they cannot enroll in classes.

The FAFSA is a daunting form. I can say this because I’ve filled it out regularly for about five years. It’s long and complicated. It asks questions that require access to the filer’s most recent tax filings. For adult students living at home, the FAFSA wants not only the filer’s tax form, but also their parents’. The questions are confusing. It’s easy to miss critical pieces of information, and you can’t submit the form without complete answers.

It’s easy to see why the FAFSA is a showstopper for students with uncooperative parents. At the same time, it’s also easy to see why the FAFSA is also a showstopper for parents who provide their full information.

Tens of thousands of Michigan residents are poised to flood into the state’s community colleges. Except that about half of them are being held back by the FAFSA. These would-be students and the community colleges they want to attend need to come up with a triage plan for completing the FAFSA.

This was work that graduated high school seniors would have completed under the watchful eyes of their counselors. Their counselors and teachers would helped these students push past the obstacles they encounter when filling out the forms.

Community colleges must offer additional help

For community colleges that expect to receive income from these thousands of would-be students, an immediate triage plan is in order. That triage plan absolutely must robust student to help them fill out, understand and overcome barriers.

Triage might include hands-on workshops or regular emails and pre-recorded segments to help them fill out the form. It may include phone calls and regular status checks to ensure that the students have the resources they need to attend class. It may include early access to computer labs and other on-campus spaces to help students acclimate to the College.

In any case, addressing the FAFSA is crucially important to fall enrollment this year. If community colleges expect to take full advantage of the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners programs, they’re going to have to make some accommodations for enrolling low-income students. And helping these students is easier, faster, less costly and will generate more revenue for the College than building a hotel or trying to run a gym.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education , via Flickr