Education

FAFSA completions down among NC high school seniors, but turnaround efforts ramp up

Posted March 30, 2021 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated March 30, 2021 6:08 p.m. EDT

Fewer North Carolina high school students are completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid this year.

That’s compared to this time last year, and the trend holds nationwide, according to a WRAL Data Trackers analysis of federal data.

Students are completing fewer applications, and the numbers are even worse at high schools with lower-income and higher-minority populations. FAFSA renewals among college students are down only slightly.

Not completing the FAFSA can come at a price. Many high school seniors don’t complete it because they don’t intend to go to college. However, many who don’t complete the FAFSA do end up going to college but assume they won’t qualify for aid. One group, myFutureNC, a nonprofit established to help increase educational attainment in the state, estimates that North Carolina students were eligible for about $107 million in aid in 2020 that they never applied for.

“The pandemic has really limited the flow of information for many students and families, but we really wan to get the word out that aid and assistance is available,” said Cris Charbonneau, director of advocacy and engagement for myFutureNC. “We are really striving to not let the circumstances of the pandemic dim these really bright futures.”

Education leaders and advocates are working to reduce the year-to-year FAFSA completion decline with virtual and drive-through events, and they’ve seen some gains in recent weeks.

Experts speculate a few reasons could be to blame for the drop in applications. Students who would normally be guided through the college application process aren’t seeing their counselors as much this year. College preparation programs and events have been canceled or moved online. Reliable Internet access remains a challenge for some. The prospect of virtual college is unappealing to some students. And the cost of college and the financial burden of COVID-19 have changed some young people’s priorities.

“Students have other responsibilities they have to take care of that prohibit them from seeking out these services, whereas before [the pandemic], services were at school where they didn’t have anything else to worry about,” said Kiara Aranda, a virtual college access advisor for College y Consejos with LatinxEd. “It’s been a lot harder getting connected to students.”

Even before the pandemic, students didn’t apply for federal financial aid, even though they might have been eligible for aid. Perhaps they think they won’t receive any, don’t think aid would impact their decision not to go to college, don’t know about the application or face too many challenges to filling it out, experts speculate.

This year, community college enrollment has tumbled nationwide, and many four-year institutions have suffered losses, too.

A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows a college enrollment drop among students graduating from urban and rural schools in 2020. Community college enrollment, specifically, dropped the most among students from low-income high schools. In contrast, enrollment of high-income high graduates in four-year colleges has been unaffected.

Current FAFSA data, broken down by high school, indicate that FAFSA completions are down at both Title I-eligible schools (low-income schools) and Title I-ineligible schools, although it’s nearly three times as pronounced at the low-income schools.

According to an analysis from the National College Attainment Network, which tracks each weekly FAFSA data release and combines them with other federal datasets, FAFSA completions are down about 12% at North Carolina’s Title I-eligible schools. They’re down only about 4% at ineligible schools.

Recently, however, the FAFSA complete numbers have been picking up statewide.

In early December, completed applications were down about 17% nationally and about 13% in North Carolina, compared to that time the previous year, according to FAFSA data analyzed by the National College Attainment Network. Nationally and in North Carolina, applications are now down about 8% and 7%, respectively, as of March 19, compared to March 19, 2020. Here in North Carolina, an estimated 45% of high school seniors have completed the FAFSA, about the national average.

So far in 2021, to turn around the slide, education advocates and counselors have been reaching students and their families via virtual events and counseling sessions. On Saturdays, April 10, 17 and 24, three groups — Gear Up, myFutureNC and the College Foundation of North Carolina — are hosting drive-in events in several cities across the state to help people complete the FAFSA. The sites, located at colleges and universities in those cities, will have free Wi-Fi for people who come. Volunteers wearing masks will be available to come to people’s car windows to answer questions. People must bring their own devices.

Another change since last fall: More high school seniors are stepping back into their school buildings this winter and spring, after months or even a year away.

Wagner Lainez, a 19-year-old senior at North Duplin High School, said the biggest hurdle in applying for financial aid this fall was getting his parents to supply him with the information he needed. He had to ask a few times, he said.

Lainez, like most high school seniors, hasn’t decided on a major or career path — perhaps film-making or pre-nursing. He’s applying for scholarships and deciding between colleges right now, thinking he may stay close to home.

He completed the FAFSA with the help of his counselor, Lynne Smith, who was the one who told him about it. He was able to do it on campus, during one of his cohort rotations for in-person learning.

A student can’t complete a FAFSA by themselves. Unless a college-bound student is independent of their parents, they must have their parents’ most recent federal tax returns to help prove income and, thus, eligibility for aid.

So trying to help students complete the FAFSA is a group effort, and it means getting families involved.

That can be the biggest challenge, counselors and education advocates say.

“The FAFSA is not a complicated form, but it can very quickly become complicated,” Aranda said. If a student is a citizen, but their parents aren’t, they might assume they’re not eligible for federal student aid. Or they might not know what to submit with their application.

A partnership between College y Consejos and myFutureNC hosted a virtual event for Hispanic students and their parents earlier this year to advise them on completing the FAFSA.

In Wake County, the state’s largest school district hasn’t seen much of a decline in FAFSA completions, down only about 1% compared to this time last year. Completed applications are down at several high schools and up at others.

The Wake County Public School System has the benefit of having financial aid advisers available to every high school.

The district has also hosted virtual financial aid nights for families, said Crystal Reardon, the district’s director of counseling. So far, high school counselors are reporting more students inquiries about FAFSA, Reardon said. Students don’t appear to be less interested in college, she said. They might delay completing FAFSA because some colleges have pushed back their application deadlines and acceptance notices.

At Clayton High School, which is not a low-income school, FAFSA completions have actually been rising. That’s in correlation with the school’s participation in the Finish the FAFSA Initiative, beginning last fall, and a change in how the school assigns responsibilities to each school counselor.

Traditionally, each school counselors has a designated caseload of students. But last spring, not as many students were attempting to meet with their counselors during the early days of COVID-19 and remote learning. So this year, Clayton High School’s counselors decided to concentrate the caseloads among fewer counselors and designate one counselor as a program coordinator, for things like FAFSA completion initiatives.

That’s Jessica Druzak, who this year has hosted numerous events and conversations with parents. She’s been able to focus on only year-long programs. Previously, she’d juggle her student caseload and the programs for those students, which could be challenging.

The counselors are considering making the change to their duties permanent, Druzak said.

“I think it really did work this year,” she said.

And the Finish the FAFSA initiative has prompted her to spread the message school wide this year. The goal is to get all students considering college to complete it.

But even Druzak is surprised to learn the high school’s FAFSA completions have risen by about 10% since this time last year.

Typically when talking with parents, they say they have no need to apply for aid because they won’t qualify, Druzak said.

This year, Druzak made FAFSA completion a school-wide initiative, sending information to parents and otherwise getting the word out about the importance of completing the FAFSA.

Part of the initiative is to get everyone to complete the FAFSA before deciding whether they want to go to college.

“For some kids, they do not feel like they’re capable of going to college,” Druzak said, because they think they can’t afford it.

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