Decline in FAFSA, college applications cause for worry

As the coronavirus pandemic continues with no clear end in sight, fewer high school students are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the Common Application—two strong indicators of who will actually enroll in college. 

FAFSA completion lagging

The FAFSA application cycle for the 2021 school year opened on Oct. 1. According to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), 16 percent fewer high school students have completed the FAFSA, compared with this time last year. The number is even worse for students from underrepresented backgrounds. NCAN reports an 18.6-percent decrease in FAFSA completions among high school seniors at Title 1-eligible schools, where at least 40 percent of students are from low-income families.

Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN, says the decline is “alarming” and believes that competing demands are preventing students from filling out the financial aid form. 

“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 told The Hechinger Report. “FAFSA completion is just kind of falling down the list of priorities for a lot of students and families.” 

While there is still time for that number to improve—FAFSA forms aren’t due until June 30—earlier is better. FAFSA is the key that opens the door to federal, state, and institutional grants, many of them first-come, first-served. 

App numbers down as early-decision deadlines loom

In a similar trend, the Common Application, used by over a million students each year to apply to college, saw about 8 percent fewer first-year applications through Nov. 2 than it did last year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Common App also reports 10 percent fewer applicants as of this month, when many schools have their early-admission application deadlines. 

College counselors point out that the drop-off has been concentrated among underrepresented students, who would typically benefit from extra support during the application process. The Common App has seen a 16 percent dip in applicants who request fee waivers and a similarly sized drop in applications from students who would be the first in their family to attend college.

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