Financial aid forms are down more than 9 percent compared to a year ago

Filing of college financial aid forms by high school seniors is down 9 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Credit: Jill Barshay/The Hechinger Report

High school seniors are filling out more financial aid forms than they were in the midst of the pandemic autumn of 2020, when there were record high drops in completions. But as of Feb. 12, 2021, filings of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, were still down a whopping 9.4 percent from a year ago, which does not bode well for college going in the fall of 2021.

FAFSA filings remain especially depressed at high schools with higher concentrations of students of color, in rural areas and small towns and in low-income schools everywhere. 

“We’re clawing back some ground from where we were in November, but 9 percent is still a massive number,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the nonprofit National College Attainment Network, who tracks FAFSA completion rates every week. “We’ve made progress on getting more students of color and financially disadvantaged students to college. But given the trends we’ve seen, we risk backpedaling on that progress if we fail to help those kids find a post-secondary pathway now.”

FAFSA filings are seen as a leading indicator of future college enrollment because students need to fill out the form to obtain financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study jobs, important steps for most students in the college application process. More than half of the nation’s 3.8 million high school seniors typically fill out the form every year and even a 1 or 2 percentage point drop is considered a big change. Thus far, only 39 percent of the current high school class of 2021 has completed the FAFSA, adding up to roughly 150,000 fewer students than usual at this point in the college application cycle. 

Alarm bells sounded earlier in the fall of 2020 when 200,000 fewer first-time students enrolled at community colleges — a 21 percent drop in enrollment by freshmen. That was on the back of a much smaller 4 percent drop in FAFSA filings during the previous 2019-20 cycle. The current 9.4 percent drop in FAFSA filings is more than twice that size but much improved since November when FAFSA filings were down almost 17 percent.