Lynda McGee, a college counselor at the Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles, is trying everything she possibly can to get her students to apply for financial aid.
She has doubled the number of students enlisted as peer college counselors. And she is holding drop-in sessions on Zoom for students to discuss college.
But she feels she can't fully connect with them — over Zoom, she can't look them in the eye. Many students have their cameras off. And she's worried: As of early December, only about half of students had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, she said, compared to nearly three-quarters in 2018.
She's not alone in her concern. Only about one in four high school seniors nationwide filled out their FAFSA as of Dec. 4 — down 14% from a year ago, according to the National College Attainment Network's FAFSA Tracker. The differences were even bigger for low-income students and those from high schools with high shares of Black and Hispanic students.
The lag is especially concerning because college enrollment rose during the last recession. That's proving not to be the case amid the coronavirus pandemic, which created an entirely different kind of economic disruption. Beyond personal challenges, COVID-19 threw a wrench into the ways colleges often recruit students: by creating connections in person.
Students seeking help for the 2021-22 academic year must file their FAFSA paperwork by June 30, 2022 — so there's time for colleges to reverse the trend. But it's hard to say if, or how, that could happen.
In many states, students must file their FAFSA much earlier to be eligible for state aid. For that reason, Carol Rava, deputy director of Get Schooled, a national nonprofit focused on college access, said she's worried "there will not be enough time to make up the losses." Students who don't file the FAFSA on time might turn to colleges for direct aid or seek scholarships, she said.
"This is the storm before the storm," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, adding that the FAFSA data hints at a repeat or worsening of the undergraduate enrollment decline recorded this fall. Early data from the National Student Clearinghouse showed that, compared to the class of 2019, 22% fewer high school students who graduated in 2020 enrolled in college this fall.
"COVID is having a powerful effect," Carnevale said.
Who isn't signing up?
Not all students are experiencing this trend equally. Some observers worry those with fewer resources will see a more severe dip in college-going. FAFSA completions were down 17% as of Dec. 4 among seniors in Title I-eligible high schools, which serve high concentrations of students living in poverty. That's compared to a 12% drop among their peers at wealthier schools.
There are also differences by race: High schools with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students are experiencing a 20% decline from this time last year, compared to a 10% dip at schools where those groups are a smaller share of students.
In California, while FAFSA applications and renewals were up 6.6% as of late November, those for the California Dream Act were down 24.1%, according to the California Student Aid Commission. That program helps unauthorized students who were brought to the U.S. as children receive state aid.
The decrease means there will be students who likely won't be going to college next fall, potentially as a result of the pandemic, said Patrick Perry, CSAC's division chief of policy, research and data.
Another sign of an uneven decline is in the number of students applying to colleges using the Common App, a universal application that more than 800 colleges nationwide use.
The number of first-year students applying to at least one college using the application was down 2% from the same point in 2019, according to data from the organization. But first-generation and low-income applicants saw sharper decreases of roughly 7% each. Although these groups made up some ground from mid-November, a Common App spokesperson said in an email that those numbers may not level out by January.
There's no clear evidence applicants are picking schools with looser deadlines, and many students are continuing to wait up until deadlines to apply, the spokesperson said. Rava said the numbers might show more of a "delay of the whole process and hesitancy to commit to go to college" than any specific pattern in which type of schools students are applying to.
"With the economic uncertainty … a lot of students are just questioning: Should I go to college? Can we afford to go to college?" Rava said. "There are more pressing immediate needs."
Reaching students during COVID-19
The pandemic's fallout can knock college paperwork to the bottom of high school students' to-do lists.
They're also not connecting with college counselors the way they usually might, and they're missing physical reminders of college admissions season, like posters prompting them to apply for aid, Rava said.
Ashley Johnson, executive director of the Detroit College Access Network, sees the result of that change in her community. After hours of online school, it's hard to get students to focus on another digital duty. She has also heard from seniors who are disengaged from virtual school or hesitant to spend money on college when the traditional in-person experience is now more the exception than the rule.
This year, in response to the pandemic, DCAN partnered with several local high schools that had less than 40% of seniors completing their FAFSAs by March 1 in previous years. DCAN is coaching staff there on how to bring their numbers up.
Beyond the equity implications of having fewer low-income and first-generation students, lower enrollment next fall would also likely mean less income at a time when colleges are already facing potential budgetary cutbacks.
Here are a few ideas college access experts have for how to reverse the early trends:
Get social. Skip the emails and go where students are: social media. Some colleges are using newer platforms like the video app TikTok.
Expand your pool. Colleges could use this as an opportunity to begin recruiting older students more aggressively, said Terri Taylor, strategy director for innovation and discovery at the Lumina Foundation. Colleges also can bring back students who left before finishing their degrees by making learning more flexible and helping them develop plans to complete their credentials.
Form connections. Connect potential applicants with current students. Rava, of Get Schooled, advises enlisting students who reflect the demographics of who they want to reach.
Find new ways to understand students. Colleges should seek to get to know prospective students better through their cultural experiences. Getting admissions representatives out into communities they might have overlooked in the past can help, DCAN's Johnson said. Engage with churches, tribal gatherings and nongovernmental organizations.
Reduce barriers. Simplify the financial aid application process — at least within the realm of a particular school. That includes waiving application fees, Johnson said. Jenny Rickard, the Common App's president and CEO, suggested making deadlines flexible where possible and eliminating standardized testing requirements.
A recent change could help ease the process of applying. The U.S. Education Department said earlier this month it would require a smaller percentage of FAFSA applications to be verified, a cumbersome process that can slow students' aid packages.
Facts matter. Anticipate and correct misinformation, such as the belief in states where financial aid is an entitlement that it will run out. Additionally, research shows that targeting students from underserved communities with specific information about financial aid will help them apply and enroll — rather than just putting information on a website and hoping the right students find it.
Use work-study. Colleges could train work-study students to be FAFSA experts and mentors in order to walk prospective students through the process one-on-one, McGee, the college counselor, suggested.
Such strategies can help underserved students picture themselves in college. "Give them a little bit of entitlement," McGee said. "The wealthier kids are not saying, 'We're not going to college.'"