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Students are not submitting as many financial aid applications as they typically would this fall because fewer would-be students are attending college — another example of economic fallout from the pandemic, experts say.
Undergraduate enrollment is 4% lower this year compared with last year, according to October 2020 data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Some of the enrollment slump is due to health-related fears or discomfort with online learning, but it’s also a matter of family finances, says Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
“There are some students who may want to wait until it’s safe to go for in-person classes, but I think the bigger issue is if their family members have lost jobs, they just don’t see college as being affordable,” Kelchen says.
If you can’t pay for school entirely out of pocket — and few can — the key to college affordability is financial aid. The gatekeeper to federal aid like the Pell Grant and work-study, not to mention federal student loans, is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
This year, FAFSA renewals are down by 1% overall compared with the same time last year, according to an analysis of federal data by the National College Attainment Network. This year’s rates are worse for low-income students: FAFSA renewals are down 5.4% this year among those with annual incomes below $25,000 compared with last year, despite the fact that many low-income students are eligible for need-based aid.
While 1% — or even 5% — may not seem like much, the decline signals a warning shot for experts. Decreases in FAFSA completion often correspond with students’ inability to complete degrees.
Kim Cook, executive director of the NCAN, says that it may seem like the most challenging time to attend college, but a degree is "more important and valuable than ever toward your overall career and income" when it comes time to find a job.
For students concerned about finding money to pay for school, applying for aid is the first step. Here are some of the main barriers students face.
Family finances and dynamics have changed
College attendance is costly, and it’s a strain families already tightening the proverbial belt could do without. It’s especially difficult for those facing coronavirus-related job loss (around 8% of Americans are unemployed and actively looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and added pressures at home.
People forget that many students are also parents, some of whom are putting off furthering their own education due to their children's remote learning needs or child care closures, says Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst at The Institute for College Access and Success.
“If you are worried about your family’s basic survival, then going to college might drop further down your priority list of things to do,” says Edward Conroy, associate director of research communications for The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
Students don’t have the same support in place
Right now, high schools and colleges would typically host FAFSA completion events, but COVID-19 restrictions mean less in-person help, says Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
College aid offices are pivoting to virtual events, but Draeger says the lack of in-person attention is proving to be a barrier to students already struggling to complete the FAFSA.
“For some students, it’s the mental complexity associated with the FAFSA. They could do it, but it’s just this one extra step,” Draeger says.
Changes to family finances pose an additional challenge for students unsure of how to answer certain questions on the FAFSA without individualized guidance, Cook says.
“Many personal and financial situations changed during the pandemic — job loss, income loss, catastrophic medical bills and, in some cases, the death of parents,” Cook says. “These are major changes to [students’] financial circumstances and they don’t have the support to handle it.”
The application may not reflect current need
If your family experienced income changes recently, the FAFSA won’t reflect your current need.
That’s because the application will pull your family’s prior-year tax information to determine aid (for 2020-21, that means 2018 returns). So a job loss this year won’t be taken into consideration.
But there’s an extra step in the process that can help fix this. You should still submit the FAFSA, then contact your school’s financial aid office to request a professional judgment. It’s a review of your more current financial picture that can help financial aid administrators adjust the information on the FAFSA you submitted.
Why all students should submit the FAFSA
Even if you’re on the fence about attending college next semester or even next year, there’s no harm in completing an aid application.
“You’re not committing to anything by submitting a FAFSA,” Conroy says. “It at least gives [students] some idea of what options may be available before potentially shutting the door on something before we can see what something is going to look like.”
You have until June 30, 2021, to submit the FAFSA for the 2020-21 school year. And next year is right around the corner — the application for 2021-22 just opened on Oct. 1.