College & Workforce Readiness

This Is Not a Good Time to Fall Off the College Track. Students Are Doing It Anyway

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 08, 2021 6 min read
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the decline.

Fewer than 2 in 5 students scheduled to graduate high school this spring have so far applied for college financial aid—a more than 9 percent drop from this time last year—increasing concerns that students will be unable to continue on to higher education amid a massive economic recession.

Before 2020, financial aid rates had been ticking up slowly following years of state efforts to increase the number of students going to college. Yet even then, students in high-poverty schools were found to have fewer supports and be less likely to apply for financial aid than students in wealthier schools. After the pandemic set in, every state lost ground and the gaps in college access for poor students and students of color have worsened.

So far this school year, students in schools with high concentrations of low-income students and students of color saw the biggest drops in completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, according to ongoing analysis by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. FAFSA allows students to access billions of dollars in federal loans, grants, and work-study programs, as well as qualify for state and college financial aid. (The federal student aid office is expected to release additional data on February and March applications later this month.)

High-poverty schools eligible for federal Title I money saw a more than 12 percent decline in FAFSA applications this February compared to the same time last year. The year-to-year decline for non-Title I schools, in comparison, was 7 percent. Likewise, schools with a high percentage of students of color had a 14.6 percent drop in financial aid applications during the same time, roughly three times the decline seen in low-minority schools.

That bodes ill for turning around a college-going gap that started in the wake of the pandemic, when 56 percent of 12th graders int the Class of 2020 completed FAFSA by the June extended deadlines, compared to 57.2 percent in 2017-18. NCAN has found students who complete the form are 84 percent more likely to enroll in higher education, and the poorest 20 percent of students are 127 percent more likely to be enrolled in college the fall after they graduate high school.

“The COVID pandemic quarantine and recession happened so quickly that it wasn’t as if families could plan ahead or make these decisions about how they were going to balance [higher education and family needs],” said Bridget Terry Long, dean and professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a longtime FAFSA researcher. “And now ... families are still in crisis, and it just takes up a lot of parents’ and students’ energy to plan.”

Data chart showing year-over-year percentage change in FAFSA completions

Is Competition Rising for Financial Aid?

Individual communities’ responses to the pandemic have affected students’ college planning decisions, too. A new study in the journal Educational Researcher looked at FAFSA applications in California from March to mid-August of 2020. It found that low-income communities and communities of color saw sharper dives in financial aid applications than the country as a whole during that time. But after accounting for demographics, the study found FAFSA applications rose in communities that had higher-than-average unemployment during the first months of the pandemic. Long suggested that these boosts in financial aid interest could suggest that not only graduating seniors but unemployed adults were competing for college financial aid.

Similarly, NCAN has found suburban communities had significantly higher FAFSA rates than rural or urban communities.

In the near term, competition for money and admission at some highly selective colleges may increase, according to Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“I know at Georgetown that the applications have doubled,” he said, which may worsen equity problems for low-income students. “Rich kids don’t stop going to college, so this is going to play out by race and income.”

“The issue now in education, K-12 or higher ed, is everybody is hunkered down in their silos. … We have a youth-to-adult transition for which there are no maps,” Carnevale said. “The only through-line is counseling and student services, because if you supply those along the way you can connect the dots [for students] and move people. … but there is no plan to fund that at all.”

Before the pandemic, many schools had started to experiment with online and mobile supports for high school students and recent graduates, but more recent research has raised questions about popular interventions intended to “nudge” students to stay on track to enroll in and enter college. For example, a new federal study looked at 4,800 graduating students in the federal college-access program Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) from 2015 to 2017, before the pandemic. Half of the students were randomly assigned to receive customized text messages reminding them of upcoming deadlines and offering to connect them to an adviser for support. Students did receive the texts and use them to connect with their high school advisers—but the staff had average case loads of 40 students enrolling in and attending eight different colleges. In the end, the study found students who received the texts were no more likely to enroll and attend college in the fall after graduation—or to persist in college if they did enroll—than students who got no “nudges.”

“Early studies of low-cost, text-message-based advising generated enthusiasm because of their potential to help improve college access,” researchers concluded. “However, accumulating evidence indicates the messaging is only effective in a small set of situations.”

Long said efforts to simplify the FAFSA have improved application rates, but research shows students’ relationships with counselors, teachers, and others who can walk them through the process are more important to completion. As schools have been forced to move away from in-person FAFSA workshops during social distancing, students and their families have found it harder to get questions answered and concerns resolved.

“If you think about low-income, first-generation students, having that assistance is quite important for understanding this complicated system, with complicated questions,” she said. “Some of these families aren’t used to having bank accounts and filling out mortgages, and say this is the first time that you’re dealing with this kind of complex financial form, and it’s very high stakes.”

Once in, Class of 2020 Students Are Staying

The financial aid data do show some reason for optimism once students have matriculated into college. From October through December, the monthly financial aid renewals—applied for by students with existing Pell grants or other aid—were about 9 percent higher month over month than they were for the same period last year, before the pandemic started. That suggests students who entered college committed to pursuing a degree, even though higher education officials have expressed concern that current students have experienced more stress from class disruptions and class format changes.

That’s in line with the California study, which found that early declines in financial aid applications among college upperclassmen and graduate students last spring recovered and ended up 8 percent higher by August 2020 than they had been in previous years.

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as This Is Not a Good Time to Fall Off the College Track

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