For high school seniors dealing with the fallout of a pandemic, college financial aid applications sometimes end up on the backburner.
“Getting into that whole college mindset is a little bit difficult this year,” said Laura Sangster, a counselor at New London Multi-Magnet High School. “A lot of students, their reality changed with COVID.”
It’s not just New London, and it’s not just Connecticut. National data shows that the number of completed FAFSAs, or Federal Applications for Free Student Aid, are down 11.4 percent as of January 1 in comparison to January of the previous year.
As of the first of January, 40.1 percent of Connecticut high schoolers had completed the FAFSA, the sixth highest completion rate in the nation. Still, Connecticut remains 9.4 percent below where it was last year.
Paying for college
According to Chris Soto, director of innovation and partnerships at the Connecticut Department of Education, filling out a FAFSA has a direct impact on whether or not students decide to pursue a college degree.
“We know the FAFSA is the best predictor that a student is going to enroll in college,” said Soto.
But federal funding may not have equal benefits for all students. For those who come from middle-income families, FAFSA money comes in the form of a loan with an interest rate of 2.75 percent for undergraduate students (the federal government has temporarily reduced the interest rate to zero because of the pandemic).
“There are opportunities for funding,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, “But they are not all commitment-free.”
However, students whose families earn below a threshold income can receive a Pell Grant, which doesn’t have to be paid back after the student graduates. In the 2020-21 school year, the maximum grant amount was $6,345 per student.
Even if the grant doesn’t cover all of a student’s expenses, said Soto, it gives the college an idea of how much aid the institution needs to offer the student in order for him or her to attend classes.
“Applying for FAFSA really is the easiest way to get as much financial aid from not just the government, but also from schools as well,” said Sangster.
Sangster added that a Pell Grant can fund almost an entire two years’ worth of tuition at a community college.
A gubernatorial initiative
In December, Gov. Ned Lamont called on 21 school districts across the state where less than half of seniors completed a FAFSA application last year, and where more than 45 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, to submit ideas for encouraging students to apply.
The program — called the FAFSA Completion Challenge — selected proposals from 16 of the 21 districts to receive additional resources including a $3,000 grant, access to the communication platform Signal Vine, data tracking, and a virtual community for counselors.
In September, the two districts that raise their completion rates the most will receive grants of $10,000 and $5,000.
The 16 participating districts include Ansonia, Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, East Haven, Hartford, Meriden, Naugatuck, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Norwich Free Academy, Putnam, Waterbury, and West Haven.
A negative correlation between participation and need
Brian Kelly, head of schools at Norwich Free Academy, which was selected for the challenge, pointed out that the FAFSA was a requirement for any students who wanted to participate in the PACT Program. The program offers low-income students up to three years of free tuition at Connecticut’s community colleges.
But the benefits of filling out a FAFSA aren’t just financial. Educators who work in districts with a large population of low-income students have said that the FAFSA can be part of getting students to think seriously about their future.
“I actually think filling out the FAFSA helps people understand that college can be a reality,” said Joseph DiBacco, superintendent of schools in the Ansonia district, one of the districts selected for the challenge.
DiBacco said that between 70 and 85 percent of his 90 high school seniors would qualify for a Pell Grant. Last year, 48.2 percent of his students completed the FAFSA. As of January 6 of this year, 20 percent have completed the form.
“At least filling out the FAFSA lets you know what you can get potentially for assistance,” said DiBacco. “If you don’t fill that out, you’re never going to see college as an option.”
Yet the most recent data available from the state Department of Education suggests that districts with the most students in need tend to be the ones who are least likely to fill out a FAFSA. According to data from this year, 15 of the 20 schools with the highest FAFSA completion rates have a student body that is less than 40 percent high-need.
The state defines high-need students as young people with disabilities, “English Language Learners” and students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
In contrast, 48 of the 50 schools in which 75 percent of the student body is considered high-need have a FAFSA completion rate of below 40 percent. In New London High School, where over 94 percent of the students are considered high-need, 14.8 percent of its 155 seniors have sent in a FAFSA application this year.
Sangster said in December the district was about a month behind where it has been in past years. However, she added that seniors who are applying to two-year colleges or community colleges tend to submit the FAFSA a little later. By the end of last year, 46.9 percent of students at New London High School had filled out the application.
The challenges of a virtual year
Soto said that the most effective way to guide students through the FAFSA was through one-on-one meetings with counselors. But remote learning has made this tougher. In New London, they’ve tried to replicate these one-on-one meetings virtually.
Sangster said that getting parents involved with the FAFSA application process was also critical. However, since most of their students are first-generation college-goers, she said, the majority of parents don’t know a lot about the way financial aid works.
In a normal year, the school hosts FAFSA nights where they bring the parents to the school and teach them about the FAFSA process. However, that hasn’t been possible this year.
Jose Ortiz, principal at New London Multi-Magnet High School, said they’ve also had to figure out how to best engage with students who decided to learn remotely. He said that around 75 students, or nearly half of the student body, chose full distance learning.
But Sanger said that students have benefitted state programs that provided students with Chromebooks and internet access.
Another barrier to FAFSA completion is that the form is so difficult to fill out. New legislation may change that — in December, the federal government passed a bill intending to simplify FAFSA by reducing the number of questions on the form from 108 to 36.
The legislation also changes the formula used to calculate what was once called the “estimated family contribution” and is now known as the “student aid index.” The new formula will ostensibly make it possible for more low-income students to qualify for Pell Grants.
A shift toward digital outreach
Most schools participating in the challenge want to use the funds to increase digital communication with their students. DiBacco said he was thinking about virtual FAFSA nights and one-on-one virtual meetings with counselors for students and their families.
Kelly said that last year the school started a program called “What’s Next for Me?” which sets aside a morning for seniors to plan for their future. They talk to representatives from the police department, Three Rivers Community College, the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, the military, technical schools and Central Connecticut State University, about how to achieve their goals.
This year, the school ran the program virtually. Kelly said the school is looking at how it can incorporate the governor’s challenge into its plans. He said about 265 of his 558 seniors qualify for a Pell Grant. So far this year, 27.5 percent have completed a FAFSA, compared to 32 percent in December of last year.
Yet even with more engagement and access, school districts still have to deal with the uncertainties of the pandemic. Sangster said that many students who were accepted into two-year colleges last year ended up taking a year off because of the pandemic. And this year, students have been hesitant to look ahead to the future.
“They became a little less certain of what their future plans were, because they kind of see the world a little bit differently now. And I think that’s a big challenge, like showing them that we’ll get back to a normal eventually,” said Sangster.
Still, Ortiz said, students who have received early acceptances into colleges are coming to him with a smile on their faces. They’re excited, he said, about the possibility of going away and pursuing what they want to do.
“Sometimes I think that we underestimate the kids,” said Ortiz. “There is this resilience in them.”