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Pandemic fuels decline in college aid applications


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended education in so many ways.

And one we’re just learning more about is its impact on college applications, and specifically applications for financial aid

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports financial aid applications have slowed, and examines some of the new challenges students and their families face that are fueling that trend.

Just as students have faced new challenges this year in trying to learn in remote and hybrid instructional environments, so have high school students encountered new challenges in applying to colleges and for financial aid.

An interactive data dashboard created by the Delaware Data Innovation Lab (DDIL) in collaboration with the TeenSHARP advocacy group shows that high school seniors are completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at a slower pace this year than in the past. The decline appears most significant at schools with larger percentages of low-income and minority students, according to Atnre Alleyne, co-founder of TeenSHARP, which helps prepare black, Latinx and low-income students for colleges and community-centered leadership.

As the dashboard was unveiled last week, Alleyne made the point that the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant factor in the slowed FAFSA filing rate, but added, “I can’t say all the change was COVID-related.”

Learn more about the Delaware FAFSA Tracking Initiative here

FAFSA completion is a leading indicator of who will end up matriculating in college, says Rakhi Agrawal, a former teacher who was one of the Delaware Data Innovation Lab fellows who created the dashboard. “If lower-income students file at a lower rate, that’s likely to mean smaller percentages of low-income students enrolling in college.”

Julie Murawski, financial aid and scholarship administrator in the higher education office at the state Department of Education, said that mid-February data showed that the FAFSA completion rate for Delaware public schools (traditional and charter) dropped from 42.7 percent last year to 37.8 percent this year, placing the state slightly below the national average of 39 percent.

"If lower-income students file at a lower rate, that's likely to mean smaller percentages of low-income students enrolling in college." - Rakhi Agrawal, Delaware Data Innovation Lab

Murawski says she’s uncertain of the reason for the decline but attributed some of it to … uncertainty. “Students are holding off on making decisions about starting [college] this fall. Not knowing what campus settings will be like is making them cautious,” she says.

Because the FAFSA is an essential tool that virtually every college uses in awarding financial aid, “we’re urging students to complete the FAFSA even if they’re not sure what they will do, so they will be ready no matter what they decide,” she says.

At the school level, counselors say the pandemic – which meant that the academic year started with remote learning at most schools before transitioning into a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction – has significantly changed they way they have assisted students working on college applications and financial aid forms.

One of the first things that went missing, counselors said, was the class-wide assembly – bringing all the juniors or seniors together to run through all the steps in the application process.

“If we had an assembly, at least you would know that they all had heard it,” said Leigh Weldin, a counselor at the Conrad Schools of Science.

Also lacking this year are the personal touch and the ability to track down students when issues require a quick resolution.

“It’s hard to form connections with a student through a screen” when communicating with them at home via a Zoom session, Weldin says. “And it’s much harder if you can’t call the classroom to reach out to a student [because they’re not in the building].”

One positive for students, according to Susan Hullman, college counselor at Brandywine High School, is that the pandemic has many colleges struggling to meet their admissions goals, so they are working harder to reach out to high school students, providing more information online about their offerings and contacting high schools where they might not have recruited as heavily in recent years.

Even with colleges doing more outreach and counselors saying they’re working harder, the application and financial aid process can be overwhelming for low-income and minority students.

"Students are holding off on making decisions about starting this fall. Not knowing what campus settings will be like is making them cautious." - Julie Murawski, Delaware Dept. of Education

“First-generation families [of prospective college students] are much more impacted,” Hullman says.

For many students, Weldin adds, it comes down to “you don’t know what you don’t know.” If other members of the family have no experience with the application process, she explains, they’re not familiar with how to research college options, when and how to apply, and the importance of completing financial aid forms, she says.

“It’s hard the first time, especially during a pandemic,” she says.

While prospective college students can handle filing an application, the process can break down when it comes time to complete the FAFSA, Alleyne says. “It’s technical. It’s financial. It’s something students can’t handle on their own.”

It can also be daunting, he says. This year’s form is a 10-page packet – four pages of instructions and six pages with blanks to fill in, with more detailed instructions accompanying many of those blank items.

In certain family situations, completing the form can be problematic for students, Alleyne says. If parents are not living together, “maybe Dad doesn’t want Mom to see his finances.”  

Some parents feel uncomfortable sharing financial information with their children, Weldin says. Some parents might not have been filing tax returns, and others might have documentation concerns related to their residency status, she adds.

While these obstacles to completing the FAFSA persist, several programs in Delaware create a sort of safety net to support students who might not otherwise file.

Every two weeks, Delaware’s Office of Higher Education receives a listing of students who have completed the FAFSA, and Murawski shares this information with counselors at each public high school. The counselors, Weldin and Hullman say, cross-check the names of students on these lists against their lists of students who have said they had planned to fill out the form. Counselors then reach out to students who have yet to file, remind them of what they need to do and, in many cases, refer them to an important partner in the safety net, Stand by Me Delaware.

Stand by Me, a partnership between United Way of Delaware and the state, is a financial coaching network whose services include programs on paying for college and applying for scholarships as well as personal, one-hour appointments with students and parents to assist them in filling out the FAFSA.

In the past, Stand by Me counselors made presentations at high schools and scheduled FAFSA-assistance meetings at the schools as well. For the current school year, Stand by Me has pivoted into a totally online operation.

"We have to let them know that there's money available, if they apply, and it's not too late." - Atnre Alleyne, TeenSHARP co-founder

“Presentations were in the evening, but they weren’t school-specific,” so parents didn’t have to worry about getting to a program at their child’s school on a particular night, Murawski says. “This turned out to be a resource change that parents liked.”

“Stand by Me has been amazing. They have such depth of knowledge,” Weldin says.

Another piece of the safety net is Delaware Student Success, a Department of Education website that puts students on a college-planning path in seventh grade and guides them through high school.

Teen SHARP, Alleyne’s organization, also encourages low-income and minority students to prepare for college in a variety of ways. In addition to its year-round Delaware Goes to College Academy, it offers a series of College Knowledge Nudge messages and is partnering with the University of Delaware on a three-hour Conquering College Admissions workshop on March 31.

While counselors continue to prod students at their schools to fill out the FAFSA, Alleyne says he will encourage organizations that interact regularly with teens to get the word out. That means working with community centers, churches and other agencies.

“They won’t have to do anything directly with students – just get the word out,” he says. “We have to let them know that there’s money available, if they apply, and it’s not too late.”

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