A New Worry From the COVID-19 Crisis: Paying for College

Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form were on the rise until this spring.
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form were on the rise until this spring.
—Jon Elswick/AP-File
| Updated: May 12, 2020 | Corrected: May 6, 2020
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Cristobal Rincon, a senior at Classical High School in Providence, R.I., has been planning his higher education since the 5th grade. This spring, with a 3.7 GPA and an initial application for federal financial aid in, Rincon was firmly on track to be the first in his family to attend college.

Even the most carefully laid college-financing plans risk collapse when they come in contact with COVID-19.

"This spring was probably one of the most difficult times of my life, not just because of school, but because my father himself was diagnosed with the coronavirus," Rincon said.

During the time he would have been finalizing enrollment, he was instead worrying about his father's deteriorating health and his family's finances. His original plan to attend a robotic engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic seemed financially untenable.

"I was really confused on what to do," Rincon said.

The pandemic has massively disrupted seniors' arrangements for college funding. Many students like Rincon, who had already applied for financial aid before the pandemic, saw their families’ financial picture lose focus from medical bills or job losses. Others who had planned to apply this spring with help from guidance counselors or school programs, lost the professional support or technical access they needed when schools shut down. Both K-12 and higher education experts say students urgently need help from their schools to get back on track before the window for funding closes.

“District leaders have so many high-priority things on their plates, in terms of COVID-19 response, as they think about closing out the current school year and looking towards summer and fall. But given the impact that this can have on the lives of young people, we are advocating that this be one of their high priorities,” said Mike Magee, the chief executive officer of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit advocacy group whose members lead districts serving 14,000 schools. “In an environment where families’ economic situations are in many cases dramatically changing for the worse right now, making sure college is affordable for students is critical. And this is a tried-and-true way to do that.”

Normally, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, provides a single point of access to billions of dollars in federal loans, grants, and work-study arrangements, and also helps students qualify for additional aid from states and colleges. And FAFSA completion rates throughout the states have been on the upswing in recent years, thanks to concentrated efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to streamline the application process and target support for low-income and first-generation college-goers.

In the span of just a few months that work has started to unravel. Nationwide, only 52 percent of the Class of 2020 had successfully completed a FAFSA form by May 1, according to the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. Lower-poverty schools are down in FAFSA filings by more than 2 percent from this time last year, while the decline in high-poverty schools is more than 4 percent, the network reports.

Part of the problem this year is that broader efforts to buffer the economic hit for families during the pandemic may have had unintended consequences for their financial aid planning, said Anne Kress, the president of Northern Virginia Community College.

“The kick-the-can game with the federal tax deadline is intended to help, but typically low-income families will use that same information to complete the FAFSA form,” she said. “If they don’t file until July and they try to wait [for the tax information], they're likely not going to complete that FAFSA form until very, very late,” Kress said.

While families are permitted to use prior tax returns, many first-time FAFSA applicants don’t know this.

Deadlines for the federal and many states’ financial aid already have been extended until June 30, and some states’ applications have been pushed back even farther. All told, Magee said some 51,000 students, including those most in need of college support, could leave more than $105 million in financial aid on the table if they miss these extended windows.

Chiefs for Change launched its annual financial aid drive on Monday with an internet video from former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging school districts to reach out to students to make sure they have completed applications and ensured they have settled their finances. “Across the nation, families are struggling to cope with the pandemic, but we cannot allow this crisis to derail students’ educational progress,” Duncan said in the video.

Some districts are working to adapt financial aid guidance and support for families that in prior years filled out applications during in-person “FAFSA Night” events, during college planning classes, or using school internet access. In Guilford County, N.C., for example, the Chiefs for Change group provided a grant for 75 school buses to act as internet hot spots for parents during virtual financial aid events.

"The support of teachers, school personnel, and community-based partners is key to FAFSA completion in many communities, so a situation in which students aren't seeing those helpers on a regular basis could be a contributor to FAFSA declines," said Kelly Mae Ross, spokeswoman for the National College Attainment Network.

The nonprofit College Crusade of Rhode Island, for example, has for years provided mentorship and college planning for first-generation college students beginning in elementary school and running through high school, including helping about 400 students a year complete financial aid applications. But this year, the group expanded online FAFSA support to every senior in the state, after data showed only a little more than 60 percent of the senior class had completed the form.

The group also found some deeper financial needs among the students it already serves, like the hopeful robotic engineer Rincon, said Andrew Bramson, the president and CEO of the College Crusade.

“We have students that are saying, ‘You know, I need $750, $500—I just don't have the money to do my deposit right now.’ We've never really had that type of demand,” Bramson said, referring to the deposits colleges often require when students accept an offer. “And I think that that is the reality of the pandemic and the reality of unemployment and the uncertainty of that. Even if families have gotten stimulus checks, the first thing that they're thinking about using them for is not deposits for college in the fall.”

The group raised a $60,000 emergency fund for small-scale grants to cover this sort of immediate cost to keep students on the road to college.

Such a grant, and the mentoring that accompanied it, made the difference for Rincon.

“I was talking to my College Crusade advisor about my current situation and, you know, feeling like my family wasn't at the right financial point to be able to support me,” Rincon said. “I thought that maybe I would take a semester off or maybe I might … I didn't know what I would do. And so she brought up the emergency fund and helped me with the process.”

A $500 deposit grant, plus guidance on how to plan work and scheduling for the rest of the summer and fall, got Rincon comfortably back to his original dream of robotic engineering at Worcester Polytechnic.

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of a school district using buses to provide WiFi for students. The district is in Guilford County, N.C.

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