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IOWA CITY — The number of federal student aid applications and renewals continues to decline in Iowa, but the slide in applications from public high school seniors leveled off this year, offering the state hope of an eventual turnaround, according to a new report from Iowa’s student financial aid agency.
So far, though, none of the state’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — numbers have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, which is a priority, given Iowa’s “future ready” goal of getting 70 percent of its workforce some level of postsecondary training or education by 2025.
“The FAFSA opens the door to postsecondary education because it is required for all federal student aid, including Pell grants and student loans, and most state and institutional aid,” according to the report from the General Assembly-commissioned agency Iowa College Aid.
Students who file a FAFSA, according to the agency, increase their odds at attending and succeeding in college — which has become increasingly important to the state, given looming demographic projections of an “enrollment cliff” propelled by fewer high school graduates in the coming years.
“Meeting Iowa’s Future Ready Iowa goal requires more high school students to attain postsecondary education,” according to the state’s new FAFSA report, made public this week. “There is a strong relationship between filing the FAFSA and enrolling in postsecondary education for college-intending students.”
Also key to meeting employer demands in this increasingly diverse state is closing the equity gap in FAFSA filers — which is “substantial,” according to the report, with a far higher percent of white and Asian students filing financial aid applications than Black and Hispanic students.
“Policymakers, practitioners and administrators should develop policies and strategies that address these equity gaps directly,” according to the report. “Closing these equity gaps to ensure that more under-resourced students file the FAFSA and enroll in postsecondary education is necessary to meet Iowa’s workforce needs.”
The annual FAFSA filing window runs from Oct. 1 to May 31, and 95,445 college-bound students and current undergraduates filed forms for the current academic year — a 12 percent drop from the 109,070 who did for the 2018-2019 academic year before the pandemic.
This year’s filing numbers also were down 4 percent from last year’s 98,996 tally.
But looking just at Iowa’s high school seniors, 18,355 filed a FAFSA for this academic year — up 112 from last year. That figure amounts to nearly half of Iowa’s high school seniors in the class of 2022 — the same level as the previous year — indicating a leveling off of what had been annual declines.
But numbers haven’t rebounded to the 19,840 senior applications for 2018-19, when 53 percent of that graduating class filed. And Iowa College Aid has several ideas about why:
- High school counselors, who typically aid in and encourage FAFSA filing, still are addressing pandemic-related issues.
- College-going rates for the smaller pool of Iowa high school graduates are declining generally.
- Low unemployment rates typically drive down college enrollment by drawing more high school graduates into the workforce directly, decreasing the number of students filing FAFSAs.
Iowa College Aid hopes this year’s stabilization is a good sign.
“Even though we have yet to return to our pre-pandemic FAFSA completion rate, we are encouraged that this year’s FAFSA completion rate has remained steady and hope this is an opportunity to drive those rates upward,” Iowa College Aid Executive Director Mark Wiederspan said in a statement.
Iowa College Aid is encouraging educators to focus on the demographic gaps between students by gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status — which have remained consistently wide for years, according to the report.
Where 60 percent of Asian students and 53 percent of white students filed FAFSAs for the current year, 33 percent and 32 percent of Hispanic and Black students did so, the data showed.
During the height of COVID, white students saw a modest drop in filing and Asian students actually saw an increase — while filing among Hispanic students and those identifying as two or more races fell 6 percentage points.
Statistics were even lower across each of those demographic categories for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — with just 28 percent and 29 percent of Hispanic and Black students who qualify filing FAFSAs for this year, a decrease from previous years.
On gender discrepancies, Iowa’s filing rate among females was 15 percentage points above its rate for males — 57 percent versus 42 percent. That gap has persisted over the years — with both genders experiencing 4 percentage point declines since 2018-19.
“These numbers underscore the importance of efforts to increase Iowa’s rates,” according to Iowa College Aid, which this summer — in collaboration with the Iowa College Access Network — hired 11 FAFSA associates to help students file applications and follow through on higher education plans.
Iowa College Aid also is hosting a “FAFSA Learning Day” Oct. 11 as part of its FAFSA Awareness Week Oct. 10-14 — a statewide initiative to give Iowans step-by-step help on completing the FAFSA and securing financing for continuing education after high school.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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