Amid pandemic, fewer students seek federal aid for college

FILE - In this June 27, 2020, file photo, Saltillo High School seniors make their way to the football field as the sun begins to set for their graduation ceremony in Saltillo, Miss. The number of high school seniors applying for U.S. federal college aid plunged in the weeks following the sudden closure of school buildings this spring  a time when students were cut off from school counselors, and families hit with financial setbacks were reconsidering plans for higher education. (Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP, File)
FILE - In this June 27, 2020, file photo, Saltillo High School seniors make their way to the football field as the sun begins to set for their graduation ceremony in Saltillo, Miss. The number of high school seniors applying for U.S. federal college aid plunged in the weeks following the sudden closure of school buildings this spring a time when students were cut off from school counselors, and families hit with financial setbacks were reconsidering plans for higher education. (Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP, File) (Thomas Wells)

The number of high school seniors applying for U.S. federal college aid plunged in the weeks following the sudden closure of school buildings this spring — a time when students were cut off from school counselors, and families hit with financial setbacks were reconsidering plans for higher education.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, the number of new applications fell by nearly half compared to last year’s levels, fueled by a precipitous decline among students at low-income schools, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data. The numbers have risen as states and schools have launched campaigns urging students to apply for aid, but they remain down overall from last year.

It’s raising alarms among education officials who say thousands of students may be opting to delay or forgo college, with potentially dire consequences for their job prospects and future earnings.

"The consequences are that kids are going directly into the workforce. They’re closing the door on post-high school learning,” said David Nieslanik, principal of Southridge High School in Beaverton, Oregon, where he saw only more affluent students file for aid once instruction moved online.

The FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is required for students to be eligible for federal Pell grants and student loans. It’s also often a requirement for state aid. Students who complete the form are far more likely to enroll in college, studies have found, and those who receive aid are more likely to stay in college.

In the four weeks starting March 13, the number of completed applications was down 45% compared to the same period the year before, according to the AP analysis. It was sharpest at Title I schools, a federal designation for public schools that have larger shares of low-income students, which saw a 52% decrease, compared to a 39% slide at other public schools.

Overall, applications were down by 70,000 as of June 19, representing a 3.7% drop for the entire application cycle.

Even before the pandemic, some states had been expecting to see decreases as demographic shifts result in fewer high school seniors, and plenty of individual schools saw filings hold steady or increase. However, as the coronavirus started to spread, every state saw numbers slide compared to last year’s levels, even states that had more high school seniors this year.