November 19, 2020
The following article is from U.S. News & World Report
After months of record-breaking unemployment numbers and economic turmoil, fewer students in the high school class of 2021 are applying for federal financial aid.
This trend may be head-scratching for some, but experts worry high school students learning virtually aren't getting the support they need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. They are concerned that stressors related to the coronavirus pandemic are taking the focus off of time-sensitive financial aid deadlines, or that prospective students have chosen not to attend college altogether.
The number of completed FAFSAs is down about 16% nationally, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education and analysis by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network through the week of Nov. 6. The rate of completion is down even more significantly at high-minority high schools – those with at least 40% Black and Hispanic student enrollment – with about 21% fewer FAFSAs completed compared to this time last year.
Katherine Pastor, a school counselor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona, says the college and financial aid support systems in place for high school seniors have been eliminated or made more challenging by the transition to online learning.
"Before, I could just pop into your class and have a quick conversation," Pastor says. "Now, I'm trying to find where you're at, get a Zoom link, ask the teacher to create a breakout room for us, and hope that the student knows how to share their screen with me so I can help them with where they're at in the application."
Counselors note barriers to providing financial aid counseling such as students' limited access to the internet and computers; technological frustrations; limitations of a video call to assist with tasks like locating the correct tax form in a pile of paperwork; and now widely understood feelings of Zoom fatigue for counselors, parents and students alike.
Beyond the logistical problems, Pastor says both college and financial aid can become "out of sight, out of mind" as families are so far removed from their high school and its support staff at schools that have transitioned to virtual or hybrid learning.
Jennifer Satalino, student success director at ECMC, a nonprofit that assists student loan borrowers, says the decline in FAFSA completions may also be caused by students feeling unmotivated or believing that the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have rendered college out of reach. Already in fall 2020 thus far, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports undergraduate enrollment is about 4% below last year's level – a trend some experts worry may continue.
"They are grieving," Satalino says. "They haven't had the typical senior year; they're probably not going to. They are concerned that next year they might be in college, but still learning in their bedroom."
Overcoming New Obstacles to Get Free Financial Aid Help
In spite of these challenges, as high schools and colleges continue to embrace virtual learning during the pandemic, counselors and financial aid officers have also adapted and created new supports for students.
Flagstaff High School, for example, now offers advising sessions that don't require an appointment before school, after school and at lunch through Zoom, during which a counselor is available to answer student and parent questions about filling out the FAFSA.
Additionally, many states are continuing to offer FAFSA nights in a virtual format through their departments of higher education. The Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, for example, offers virtual FAFSA nights through a Zoom call that allows students and families to work on the form from their personal device with live support from financial aid professionals and volunteers.
Students can also take advantage of College Goal Sunday, also called FAFSA Day, an opportunity for free help applying for financial aid held in an online format on Sundays in the fall and spring. The date or dates of College Goal Sunday vary by state.
Students can also use the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Help Center online or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243.
Current and prospective students should take advantage of emails, webinars, YouTube videos that walk students through the form step by step, and other virtual events and resources that colleges share, says KC Woods, associate director of financial aid and scholarship programs at Syracuse University in New York.
And while students may be limited in their ability to walk into the financial aid office and ask for help, their university, like Syracuse, may have a "virtual lobby" via Zoom to get the equivalent of walk-in support.
Some high schools are also continuing to offer in-person FAFSA resources that students and their families can access.
Teresa Peterson, head counselor at Pine View High School in Utah, says the school has already held one in-person FAFSA night this fall with social distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures, on top of a virtual FAFSA night, virtual college application night, and other online events and resources available.
"Because of the weirdness and the angst people have, it's almost harder for them to get their ducks in a row," Peterson says. "But a lot of our kids are at least reaching out about this. Now if they're actually following through, I don't know."