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Some worry a drop in financial aid applications means fewer low-income students are considering college

Nationwide, federal financial aid applications from first-time filers are down by 140,000 — or more than 9% — than at the same point last year, data shows.

Colleen McCaffrey, a senior at Northeast High School, helps her peers fill out financial aid forms for college. Across the country, the number of students filling out federal financial aid forms is down more than 9%  from last year.
Colleen McCaffrey, a senior at Northeast High School, helps her peers fill out financial aid forms for college. Across the country, the number of students filling out federal financial aid forms is down more than 9% from last year.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Colleen McCaffrey, a senior at Northeast High, spends much of her time trying to persuade her classmates to fill out federal college financial-aid forms.

It’s a tougher sell this year.

”The hardest thing is just getting to people,” said McCaffrey, who’s part of Peer Forward, a program that trains teenagers to help their peers prepare for college. “In the past, we had assemblies. We could go into homerooms and talk to people in person. You can’t do that this year.”

At Northeast, the city’s largest high school, about 46% of the 833 seniors have completed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, known as FAFSA. That’s the highest rate of completion in the Philadelphia School District, said Venita DeLaRosa-Ortiz, a college and career coordinator at Northeast. But it’s also down from almost 60% this time last year.

The drop at Northeast is emblematic of a nationwide trend that has high school and college counselors and financial-aid officials worried that fewer students from lower-income families may pursue college this fall.

FAFSA is the form that state and federal agencies and colleges use to determine students’ eligibility for financial aid. In a regular year, 18 million to 19 million students use it, both rising seniors and students already in college, with deadlines that vary from state to state. It’s a key step: For many, how much aid they might receive shapes which school they ultimately attend.

The process has become increasingly high-stakes, as the cost of college climbs and schools face pressure to lower tuition. Undergraduate and graduate students received $242 billon in grants, loans, tax credits, and work-study aid in the 2019-20 academic year, according to the College Board, with undergraduates getting an average of $14,940.

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Nationwide, FAFSA applications from first-time filers are down by 140,000 — or more than 9% — than at the same point last year. It’s an improvement from November, when the gap was 17%, but still cause for concern, said MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance for the National College Attainment Network, which tracks FAFSA numbers. Filing a FAFSA is one of the highest predictors of whether students will enroll, she said.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are doing a little better, with numbers down about 7% and 5%, respectively, Keller said. Schools with high percentages of low-income students are trailing 12.3% and those with high concentrations of minority students nearly 15%, she said.

The nonprofit that oversees the Common Application, which allows students to simultaneously apply to multiple schools, also last month noted a worrisome decline in applications from first-generation students and those who seek fee waivers — even though applications overall climbed 10%.

The reasons for fewer financial-aid applications, experts speculate, are myriad: Students tired of online learning are less engaged and counselors aren’t there to prod them or assist them with forms that are difficult to complete. The virus has caused job loss and economic upheaval, leaving some families more worried about paying for college. And some students are waiting to see whether colleges will fully reopen in the fall and whether that experience will be worth paying for.

“Students are just moving a lot slower this year than in previous years,” said Kaeden Thompson, associate director for college admissions for Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that helps low-income, first-generation students with mentoring and other support. “I think we are likely to see many students submitting at the last minute.”

Financial-aid officials recommend all students fill out FAFSA, no matter their family’s financial background, so that they know where they stand on the aid continuum.

Given job disruption, Keller said, FAFSA filing should actually be up. But the pandemic has taken a toll.

“Some kids say, ‘I don’t know if it’s the right time, I don’t know if I want to go away to college or pay all that money if classes are going to be virtual,’” said McCaffrey, 18, who wants to study psychology, perhaps at the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel University.

It’s a COVID-19 pattern, said DeLaRosa-Ortiz, the college and career coordinator. Until last March, it was a good year for FAFSA completion and college applications.

”There was just a decline when COVID hit,” said DeLaRosa-Ortiz. “People said, ‘I don’t know if I can actually go to college now.’”

She and Miguel Vargas, another Northeast college and career coordinator, are going all out to help students, even running contests with prizes such as Apple AirPods to entice students still in remote schooling to complete their forms.

”If I’m in the office, I can help them bang out a FAFSA real quick … ,” said Vargas. “Virtual is hard, the WiFi is bad a lot.”

At Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia, counselor Ameera Sullivan said her students are struggling.

”We share our screens, we walk them through it, but they’re tired of doing everything on a computer,” she said. “The motivation is just hard. Everybody is just so tired.”

Filling out FAFSA forms and applying to colleges is now part of a class all Strawberry Mansion seniors take — even if students’ ultimate destination isn’t postsecondary education. Still, it’s difficult, Sullivan said.

”I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to go to college,” she said. “I think they’re just missing the supports that we give them in the building.”

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Colleges are concerned, too. At West Chester University, the filing of federal financial-aid forms by prospective students was down about 10% last month but has caught up some since then.

Every year, the university would invite families to come to campus to fill out their FAFSA forms and counselors would circle the room and assist, said Tori Nuccio, deputy director of financial aid.

“It always eased that anxiety to know that if they got stuck, there was a financial-aid administrator right there they could tap on the shoulder,” Nuccio said.

West Chester participated in a virtual version of that held by a local school district, but it wasn’t the same, she said. There were cases where the shared screen wasn’t working and another where a student held his cell phone to the webcam so she could try to assess the problem.

West Chester has offered incentives for students to fill out the forms and redesigned its FAFSA information page, Nuccio said. And the school still serves students in the office, with social distancing, she said.

Philadelphia Futures held virtual FAFSA completion nights for students last semester, said Thompson, the associate director. Students also had the option of working one-on-one with their adviser to complete forms.

“I’m lucky to have Futures because they walked us through it,” said Mia Miranda, a senior at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. “It was one of the most difficult aspects of my application. I can definitely say if I didn’t have a college navigation program, I wouldn’t have been so proactive with it.”

She said she’s already been accepted to several colleges, including Drexel, Temple, and Pennsylvania State University but is waiting to hear from others and hasn’t made a decision. She plans to major in biological sciences.

Almost 95% of Futures’ 115 seniors have submitted their financial-aid applications, Thompson said. And like Miranda, more than 85% have already been accepted into college, he said. The group is encouraging students not to delay college, because first-generation students are less likely to go if they delay, he said.

But many students are concerned about money given the impact of the pandemic, he said. More parents are unemployed and even students have lost jobs.

“What may seem like a small gap to me, a couple hundred dollars, is untenable for them,” he said.