Education

Federal student aid applications slip in Iowa, signaling enrollment concerns come fall

Report: Declines in filings 'should be of concern to higher education advocates'

A book about financial aid is seen at a college fair in New York, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A book about financial aid is seen at a college fair in New York, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Iowa is seeing a drop in the rate and number of high school seniors filing free applications for federal student aid for the upcoming school year — a probable consequence of COVID-19 and an indication some might be abandoning higher education plans for fall.

Additionally, the percentage of college coeds who already have federal aid and want to renew it next year also is down among eligible students, suggesting a “disproportionate number of low-income students might be choosing not to return to college in 2020-21.”

“Part of the decline in FAFSAs filed is likely due to COVID-19,” according to an Iowa College Aid report made public Wednesday on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) filings.

As of May 31, about 19,000 public high school seniors had filed a FAFSA, down about 4 percent from the nearly 20,000 the previous year. That decline came even as senior enrollment grew 1 percent over the same period, the report noted.

“Once students began their online high school education as of March 16, it became more difficult for high school counselors to help students file FAFSAs,” according to the report. “Additionally, high school seniors might have reconsidered their postsecondary plans given the growing concerns over the pandemic.”

Because applying for federal aid is a key step in the college-going process for many, officials perceive it as paramount in Iowa’s pursuit of getting 70 percent of its working-age population some form of postsecondary training by 2025.

“A drop in the rate or number of FAFSAs filed by high school seniors should be of concern to higher education advocates,” the report advised. “Iowa has experienced both.”

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Behind the state’s pursuit of more higher-educated Iowans is a projected surge in jobs demanding as much. But COVID-19 impeded progress on that when Iowa’s colleges and universities in March vacated their campuses and moved instruction online.

Most campuses have stayed in the virtual realm this summer, although many are planning to bring students, faculty and staff back using a hybrid model of instruction this fall.

But with students airing concerns about the prospect of another swift shift to virtual-only learning along with the loss of many traditional collegiate experiences, Iowa’s public universities are flagging potential decreases in enrollment.

The corresponding drop in tuition revenue will compound the tens of millions the campuses already have lost in their pandemic responses and from reduced state appropriations.

‘Cancel or delay’

Before the last spring semester, Iowa’s FAFSA rate had been climbing — increasing substantially from 2017-18 to the 2020-21 cycle. Applications for 2020-21 again had been trending up until COVID-19 wiped out that progress.

The impact was felt across all higher education sectors in Iowa — and nationally — as fewer completed the common aid application, which is required for all federal assistance, including Pell Grants and federal student loans. It typically is required for state and institutional financial aid as well.

National surveys recently conducted of 2019-2020 high school seniors corroborate the FAFSA decrease in that they show some students are reconsidering and possibly delaying postsecondary education.

A March-through-May analysis from the Strada Education Network found 34 percent of Americans ages 18 to 64 have canceled or changed education plans, with 65 percent of the youngest — ages 18 to 24 — having done so.

“The most common change of plans is to cancel or delay enrollment,” according to the Strada survey, which found 41 percent of those reporting plan changes were looking at cancellations and 22 percent at delays.

But Iowa College Aid officials stressed the need for postsecondary training and degrees.

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“Given increased unemployment … and potentially fewer job opportunities for high school graduates, we believe that higher education is still a good investment for both new high school graduates and current college students, even with anticipated changes in the college experience,” the report said.

The report found widening racial and income disparities among filers.

For example, as the percentage of white students in a high school increases, the percentage of seniors filing a FAFSA grows. But as the percentage of low socio-economic students swells, FAFSA rates fall.

Compared with their female, white and higher-income counterparts, males, minorities and high school students from low-income families are less likely to file.

“Over time, FAFSA filers in Iowa are coming from wealthier families, suggesting that more work is needed to address important equity gaps in FAFSA filing within high schools,” according to Iowa College Aid, which has long reported shifting demographics in the state, including increasing minority and low-income residents.

Addressing those needs, Iowa College Aid on Wednesday reaffirmed a commitment to “redouble efforts this fall to encourage more high school seniors to apply for college financial aid.”

Ramped up outreach will involve more virtual connections, as COVID-19 continues to complicate in-person activities and opportunities.

“We are definitely doing more virtual outreach, like everyone,” said Iowa College Aid spokeswoman Elizabeth Keest Sedrel.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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