The number of Wisconsin high school students filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the last year took a drastic drop, likely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The drop was most severe in underserved communities, hitting students of color, low-income students and English language learners the hardest.
From 2019 to 2021, the number of students filing the FAFSA dropped by 12.2%, the report found. The rate of students completing the form also fell from 52.7% of the class of 2019 to 46.4% of the class of 2021. The decrease in Wisconsin far outpaced the national average.
The FAFSA is an important document for students who plan on attending college. The completion of the form, which uses the financial information of a student’s family to determine what federal financial aid they are eligible to receive, is the first step for students hoping to attend college. The drop in completion in Wisconsin could be a bad sign for students’ ability to receive a degree.
The report, citing interviews with school district administrators, counselors and others, states that the disruption to normal school operations during the pandemic, along with its effect on the economy, could have played a role in the decline.
“At some schools, restricted in-person interactions meant fewer meaningful opportunities for school personnel to engage with families and students and therefore less awareness of FAFSA, weaker relationships, and less trust,” the report states. “These tend to be necessary components for successfully navigating a process that involves families’ financial information, students’ plans for the future, and frequent misconceptions about financial aid. FAFSA may also have received less attention during the pandemic because schools and families prioritized other pressing needs.”
The report also said that the pandemic may have caused some students to decide not to apply for college.
“School counselors noted that students who took jobs during remote learning found it difficult to justify walking away from current earnings to go to college instead,” it states. “Other students may have been reluctant to pay full cost for a pandemic-impacted college experience, especially after the challenges of high school remote learning. Still others may have balked at the cost of, and potential debt associated with, college given the pandemic’s impact on the economy, particularly for low-income families.”
The decreased completion rate among underserved communities is especially troubling, the report states, because students from those communities are among the most likely to benefit from federal student aid. Completion dropped 13.2% for students of color and 5.2% for white students.
The pandemic seems to have quickened some already occurring trends and reversed others. Prior to the pandemic, Wisconsin’s FAFSA completion rate was already declining — though at a much slower rate. But among students of color and low-income students, the completion rate was increasing. In Milwaukee, partnerships with nonprofits and higher education institutions were succeeding in increasing FAFSA completion, though those partnerships hadn’t yet resulted in an increase in postsecondary enrollment rates, according to the report.
The report suggests Wisconsin could follow in the path of other states, such as Louisiana, in requiring FAFSA completion for all 12th graders. Other solutions include requiring districts to confirm if students have completed the form or tying additional state funding to completion rates.
College enrollment declined nationwide during the pandemic, but the report points out that the decline of FAFSA completion is a particularly bad sign for Wisconsin, where higher education enrollment rates were already dropping.
“Even before the onset of COVID, Wisconsin faced falling postsecondary enrollment rates, as previously reported by WPF,” the report states. “These decreases carry significant negative implications for students, higher education institutions, and the workforce.”
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