Getting help to pay for college is taking on even greater importance in the pandemic.
Currently, the number of people who have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is down 10% compared to this time last year.
The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) says it's down disproportionately for lower income students.
“Students have been taken away from the traditional supports that they have, whether that's reminders and general awareness of maybe a school counselor or an access advisor from a community-based organization coming for assembly or visiting English or civics classes to talk about going to college and the steps you need to take,” said Kim Cook, Executive Director at NCAN.
Groups are getting creative during the pandemic to raise awareness about the importance of filling out the FAFSA so you can be considered for federal money, including loans and grants. One hosted a drive-in night for information.
There's been a focus on setting up more appointments for virtual help as well.
Something else that could help is making filling out the FAFSA a requirement to graduate from high school. Currently, Louisiana and Illinois require it, and Texas will for the class of 2022. But other states are now considering this too.
“The frustration is those who could benefit the most from the aid are those who are least likely to complete the form, probably because many students are in schools that are low resourced that might not have enough school counselors or outside community-based organizations available to help with awareness or to help students through some of the tricker questions on the form,” said Cook.
Since louisiana started requiring students fill out the FAFSA, completion rates went from around 55% to more than 70%. NCAN says it's not 100% because you can opt out after you've been advised about the form. They've seen about a 2% bump in college enrollment.
In two more years, we'll have a better sense if the requirement is leading to more students graduating from college.
Completing the FAFSA will get easier for everyone starting in the 2023-2024 academic year. Congress recently approved changing the form, eliminating some questions, which should make it a faster and less intimidating process.