Report: New freshmen FAFSA filers fell by 21% in California

Underrepresented students and community colleges were among those that saw steepest declines.

First-time applications for federal student aid fell 21% last year in California, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and echoing data that have been reported across the U.S. by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The new study released by researchers at the University of Missouri showed huge disparities in the number of potential incoming freshmen submitting Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) from March to August of 2020, which also included noticeable drops among Black and Hispanic students and those from lower-income backgrounds.

First-year or freshmen student applications also saw declines of 7%. The news was more optimistic for those applying at higher postsecondary levels. They rose across the board: sophomores (+1.9%), juniors (6.9%), seniors (+11.8%), fifth-year students (17.8%) and first-year graduate students (34.1%).

But the number of high school seniors and new undergrads who chose to forego filling out those vital forms gave pause to Missouri researchers and those from the Clearinghouse, who posed these questions: Will higher education permanently lose a big chunk of students to the pandemic, and will those students ever recover from it?

“COVID is tough, and it makes sense that it may make potential first-year students feel they can’t go to college, due to either overwhelming commitments or an understandable judgment that online education may not suit them in the short-term,” said Oded Gurantz, an assistant professor at Missouri and one of the co-authors of the study, which was published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. “But we know that short-term stop-outs often harm long-term outcomes, and in the long run it’s important that these students earn their degrees.”

The authors appealed to states and the federal government to make immediate changes not only in how they are connecting this information to students and families but also by “simplifying the FAFSA process, reducing the number of individuals who are asked to verify their income through additional documentation after they submit their application, or simplifying the appeals process.” The say pushing back deadlines may provide an additional window for them to reconsider those decisions or learn more about their options.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education called on institutions to use professional judgment in determining student financial aid need. Although the department said it would still be exercising some oversight, it said it would allow colleges and universities leeway to help students.

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“Without immediate investments in outreach and support, traditionally underrepresented students will be less likely to attend college and more likely to take on debt,” Gurantz said. “More outreach is needed to make sure that missing students find their way to college and that current students who are struggling get the support they need. The turmoil and economic uncertainty of the pandemic are creating substantial barriers to college entry, and the trend in FAFSA applications is likely to exacerbate enrollment gaps by income, race, and ethnicity.”

Assistance could be crucial for those in underserved communities and for the many two-year and four-year institutions that serve them. Though the overall enrollment picture has not been as bad as initially feared – a reported 2.5% to 4% decline – the numbers for community colleges, students of color and those from underserved communities are not as rosy.

In their California study, Gurantz and Wielga noted the sizable gaps among FAFSA filers – those in most heavily populated Black and Hispanic areas saw a 5% decline, while those in the least populated Black and Hispanic areas saw a 10% increase. The figures mirror those in higher- and lower-income areas. Authors also pointed out that there were more students who filed FAFSAs for entry into community colleges in the previous three years than other types of institutions.

A bailout of two-year institutions in some form may be necessary to keep them running and keep the youngest students on a path to future success.

“Providing additional funding to community colleges, which are experiencing the largest downturns in enrollment, may also be necessary,” Gurantz said. “These institutions will be central to promoting the kinds of programs and resources needed to ensure that more of these missing students are successful over the coming years, should they choose to return.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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