FAFSA application drop during COVID 'very troubling,' officials say

Virtual learning and heading into the job force are perhaps just a few reasons fewer high school seniors applied for federal financial aid. It's a concerning indicator when it comes to college enrollment and the push to gain access and overcome financial barriers.

While high school graduation celebrated the end of an academic era, for some, the next educational milestone may not be met.

"Very troubling," said Sara Shaw, Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Shaw said a Wisconsin Policy Forum report shows the coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact on students' planning for higher education.

"Nationally, we saw that FAFSA completions were down," said Shaw.

During the pandemic years of 2019 and 2021, FAFSA completion dropped just under 8%.
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"When we looked at Wisconsin, we saw that the numbers were worse than we thought; a12.2% decline from 2019 to 2021," said Shaw.

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Declines occurred across the board for students who could benefit the most.

"Even more unfortunately, those decreases impact students of limited income and Black and brown students more disproportionately," said Ericca Pollack, college access coordinator for Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools leaders say they're dedicated to increasing success after actually seeing a significant increase in FAFSA completion rates leading up to the pandemic.

"Real progress got interrupted," said Shaw.

We're now seeing a 15% decline in completion rates in just two years.

"When they don’t fill out that form, it’s the entry point for not only federal student aid, but also many other entities and eligibility," said Shaw.

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That's why each high school plans to re-engage students and provide incentives to get them back on track for college and career planning.

"Filling out that FAFSA or that Free Application for Federal Student Aid is your gateway to free money for college," said Pollack. "It also is a way for parents to access Parent PLUS Loans, for students to access Work-Study."

The FAFSA forms just became available on Oct. 1. Students are encouraged to fill them out early as some funds are limited.

The FAFSA is also very important because it unlocks local and school-based scholarships, as well. 

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