Federal financial aid applications decline during pandemic, experts discuss impact to college access

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 10:33 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Experts in higher education say the pandemic has raised concerns about college access, especially for students from underserved groups.

The fear comes as high school seniors across the nation are not filing for financial aid eligibility in numbers like before. According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the number of completions for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dropped by almost 8 percent nationwide in the last two years. The decline was worse yet in Wisconsin, with a drop of 12.2 percent in the same time frame, or since the start of the pandemic.

Senior Education Policy Researcher Sara Shaw explained, “In some cases it had to do with fewer supports available for families and students, and in some cases that had to do with students themselves actually having less interest in going to college.”

Shaw said, “The concerning piece is that fewer FAFSAs, number one, means fewer families accessing financial aid that they qualify for and that can make college more affordable for them. And it usually means fewer students enrolling in college.”

Data also showed a disproportionate drop in FAFSA completion from students at “disadvantaged schools,” including those with majority students of color and low-income students.

Cheryl Rapp, a college affordability specialist from College Goal Wisconsin, said, “Those that were already low-income [or] first generation that might have been struggling or not sure they could afford college are now thinking, ‘Well I really can’t afford college because things have changed with my life.’ Maybe they’ve lost jobs or maybe they aren’t sure where income is going to be coming in to help pay for college.”

College Goal Wisconsin is a volunteer-run nonprofit helping students with FAFSA, according to its website.

Keyimani Alford, Madison College’s dean of student access and success, said obstacles to college access include the FAFSA application itself.

“We know that our underserved, minority, first-generation students have the most challenge of completing the application, answering all the 105,108 questions that’s on the application overall,” he said.

Alford said roughly 32 percent of Madison College students this year are receiving financial aid. This is less than the average of about 35 percent.

Families can get help on completing the FAFSA form through colleges’ financial aid offices. The hotline number for Federal Student Aid is 800-433-3243.

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