Federal Financial Aid Applications From High School Students Drop Significantly During Pandemic

Wisconsin Policy Forum Report Shows More Than 12 Percent Drop Between 2019 And 2021

FAFSA form
The Bent Tree (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The percentage of Wisconsin high school students who applied for federal financial assistance to attend college dropped significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. New research by the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum shows the decline was largest among students of color and those from families described as low-income.

The Policy Forum report titled “Free-Falling FAFSA’s” shows number of applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid among high school seniors dropped by 12.2 percent from 2019 to 2021. The analysis show that’s well above the 7.8 percent decline seen nationwide during the same period.

The decline was worse among students categorized as underserved groups. For Wisconsin 12th graders of color attending public schools, FAFSA application completions fell by 13.2 percent between 2019 and 2021. The completion rate for white 12th graders in the state was down just 5.2 percent during the same timeframe.

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The Policy Forum notes that FAFSA completion rates were declining before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Wisconsin, though not as significantly. The percentage of Wisconsin high school seniors completing FAFSA applications fell from 54.1 percent in 2017 to 53.5 percent in 2018 and 52.7 percent in 2019. This year, the percentage of seniors completing FAFSA applications was 46.4 percent.

Heidi Johnson is the advising and training manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of Student Financial Aid and president of the statewide Wisconsin Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She told WPR the coronavirus pandemic and the year of online classes it brought to the state meant in-person meetings about FAFSA applications between students and high school counselors were halted.

As a result, Johnson said it wasn’t as easy for counselors to offer “friendly nudges” to encourage students to fill out the applications when mulling whether to attend college.

“So, I think certainly the timing of it, especially for that particular senior class, played a part,” said Johnson. “And just the fact that things stayed virtual, I think much longer than any of us planned for in the beginning.”

Johnson said the disparities in FAFSA applications between students of color and those from families with lower incomes could be due, in part, to difficulties with reliable internet connections or access to computers.

Johnson said members of the statewide organization, which include high school counselors, college financial aid officers and state agencies, have been working to improve online outreach to high school students. She said demystifying the FAFSA is a major goal.

In the meantime, Johnson said she’s hopeful that the sharp decline in FAFSA applications during the pandemic will be temporary.