Financial aid applications lag among California high school seniors


Applications drop off especially among low-income students.

With just a couple of weeks to go before the state filing deadline, far fewer California high school students have completed college financial aid applications than is typical.

Applications from students age 18 and under are down from previous years. As of Feb 15, only 314,855 students under age 18 completed an application. That’s 27,522 fewer than last year and 22,313 fewer than 2019.

Overall financial aid applications submitted by California’s college and high school students are up compared to previous years. As of Feb. 15, 1,122,548 students had completed an application, that’s 58,953 more than last year, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC. But that increase is driven by current college and graduate students.

Student advocates and higher education leaders fear the coronavirus pandemic and shift to online learning has prevented low-income students, in particular, from considering or applying to college. The application numbers also hint that Fall 2021 may be a difficult enrollment year because fewer financial aid applications from high school students imply fewer freshmen enrolling in college.

Compared to last year, completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in California is down about 11% for high school seniors. For the California Dream Act application, down roughly 45%. The state and federal financial aid deadline in California is March 2. College and high school students use the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid and grants. The Dream Act application allows students who are undocumented or who participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for state financial aid.

An EdSource analysis of federal financial aid applications completed, as of Feb. 5, from 1,410 California high schools found 84% had less than half of 12th graders complete the form. At those schools, only a combined 35% of seniors had completed an aid application — a 4.4% decrease from last year.

And fewer low-income California high school students appear to be applying for financial aid. Data from the state student aid commission estimates that as of Feb.15, 84,333 low-income high school students had completed an application. That is, nearly 17,650 fewer low-income 12th-graders than last year and 17,863 fewer than in 2019.

The decrease this year is even worse for the state’s low-income high school students who completed a Dream Act application. By Feb. 15, 3,292 Dream Act applications had been completed. That is, 1,947 fewer applications than last year and 2,104 fewer than in 2019.

By not completing the FAFSA, students are leaving money on the table that would help them pay for college, officials said.

“For too many students, finances are the main barrier to achieving their college goals,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 116-campus California Community Colleges, in a statement. “While there are many types of financial aid available for California community college students, most financial aid is contingent on filing a FAFSA or California Dream Act Application. However, every year there is money left on the table because students simply don’t apply. That’s why it is important for every graduating senior to submit a financial aid application — even if they don’t think they will qualify or if they have not yet decided on their plans after high school.”

Some students may be ignoring the form because they fear it won’t accurately reflect their parents’ current income, especially if that income has decreased or disappeared because of the pandemic, said Chris Nellum, deputy director of research and policy for The Education Trust-West, which advocates for low-income students and students of color. Students completing the application this year would be inserting financial information from their or their parent’s 2019 tax information.

“It’s really interesting because you have (the University of California) breaking records with applications and the community colleges seeing enrollment declines,” Nellum said “What we’re seeing is folks hit hard by the pandemic are maybe questioning whether or not they can go to college.”

The situation in California is also reflected nationally where FAFSA applications through Feb. 12 from the high school class of 2021 are down 9.4% compared to last year, according to the National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA Tracker. Applications from low-income students nationally are significantly lower than last year — down 12.3%.

Even for families who have completed the financial aid application, the process wasn’t easy.

Cari McClemons and her daughter Kaitlyn Farley, of Encinitas were concerned about including past financial information in the federal form that didn’t accurately reflect their current situation.

“I own my own business and had to shut down,” McClemons said. “Our financials this year will be completely different.”

Farley, a graduating senior at La Costa Canyon High School in the San Dieguito Union High School District, earned a softball scholarship to The Ohio State University in her junior year. She completed the FAFSA application last week, but the process wasn’t easy. For example, Farley said she didn’t receive information from her high school about the application but was told to complete it by her new Ohio State coaches.

“No one has really talked about financial aid,” Farley said. “Everyone talked about applying to schools and some teachers asked how we were doing, but no one ever talked about the application.”

The federal financial aid form has gained a reputation over the years for being complicated and difficult to complete without assistance. In recent years, Congress has made changes to simplify the application. For example, in December, Congress agreed to shorten and streamline the FAFSA, but those changes won’t take effect until 2022.

In recent years, one change to simplify the form and encourage more students to apply was the IRS Data Retrieval tool, allowing families to add information from their tax returns directly into the financial aid application.

“It says you can link to the IRS,” McClemons said. “But it didn’t link. It kept saying it couldn’t find my stuff. It took me 45 minutes just to do my part of it, the parents’ part.”

Students who don’t have their parent’s financial information readily available or who don’t have support or encouragement to complete the form may not do it at all. For many reasons, from overwhelmed counselors to information overload, students aren’t completing the application.

“In regards to college, they feel lost,” said Maryann Navia, a guidance counselor at Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita. “Not all of my students. My students who have had older siblings go to college or with parents who are very involved in the college search and their education, they have support … now my kids who don’t have support, the first-generation college students and the low-income students, they are the ones not getting the information.”

Navia said these students tend not to be aware of the deadlines, and they’re confused about the application.

“They are the ones who need me to get on Google chat and walk them through it,” she said. “That’s helped, but it’s not the same amount of kids who would normally walk into my office so that I could do that in-person.”

For many high school students, what’s missing is the interactions and notifications about when and how to prepare for college from their peers. A factor that is difficult to measure or replicate online. For example, conversations about college that would typically happen in a school hallway often don’t exist in a Google classroom. Or overhearing kids stress about scholarship deadlines doesn’t occur in a digital environment, Navia said.

“I didn’t have anyone at home to help me with college, so a lot of information I got was from my peers, listening and talking to them, getting tidbits that would awaken in me that I should apply,” she said.

Like most high schools across the state, Golden Valley hosts a “Cash for College” night in October, when the financial aid application window opens. Last year, that event took place online, and Navia is hopeful that hosting it online again this month will help more students fill out the form.

But California’s high schools have traditionally struggled to encourage students to complete college financial aid forms.

“One thing we’re hoping folks don’t lose sight of is that things may be worse now, but they were already bad,” Nellum said. “The two years before the pandemic, we estimated half a million seniors had not completed the form and left a half-billion dollars on the table. We see those challenges compounded now because folks’ support lines have been disrupted.”

Nellum and his colleagues at The Education Trust-West have supported a statewide FAFSA filing requirement. Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a similar requirement in his January budget to ensure that every school district gives all of its students information about the college financial aid applications at least once before senior year starting this fall. The proposal would also require districts to ensure that high school seniors who don’t opt out complete and submit a financial aid form.

Other states like Louisiana and Texas have made FAFSA filing a graduation requirement, but California wouldn’t have to look that far for an example of how it would work. Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County was the first in the state in 2017 to make the FAFSA a graduation requirement. Of 1,563 seniors, only 11 chose to opt-out in its first year, said Mark LeNoir, assistant superintendent for educational services in the district.

Before the pandemic, the district’s counselors created Google classrooms to contact and connect with their students, and they’re using Zoom and Google hangout to interact with students in small groups.

One other key thing for the district — connecting with TODEC Legal Center, a local grassroots immigrant rights organization in the Val Verde community, said Michael McCormick, the district’s superintendent.

“They jumped on board right away to meet with students and explain, if they’re Dreamers, how to apply for the California Dream Act application,” he said. “And many who are Dreamers and their families have been engaged.”

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