The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of many high school and college students, but now there are fears that it may be preventing them from applying for financial aid for college.

Fewer first-time college students this fall are applying for state and federal financial aid this year across California and nationally.

Early application numbers for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which launched Oct. 1, are down compared to this time last year among students who would be first-time freshmen next fall.

By the numbers

According to the California Student Aid Commission, as of Nov. 30, more California students have filed a FAFSA this year when compared to last year, with 520,220 California high school and college students submitting aid applications compared to 490,919 students by Nov. 30, 2019.

Despite that increase, applications are significantly down among students who make up the first-time freshman population, which includes high school seniors. As of, Nov. 30, 186,047 of these students had submitted an application compared to 208,193 of them the same time last year.

“The numbers are lagging a little bit behind,” said Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data for the commission. “We’re finding far fewer first-time students submitting the FAFSA and far fewer lower-income students. What’s moving the numbers up is a lot more fourth- and fifth-year (college) seniors and a lot more graduate students.”

The troubling trend shows that some students, particularly those who are facing financial challenges in the current pandemic economy may be delaying or foregoing college altogether. A study by the commission administered during the final two weeks in May revealed that 75% of 2020 high school graduates were concerned about their personal financial situation and 71% of college students reported losing some or all of their income because of the pandemic.

And for many lower-income and first-time freshmen, “it’s a bit of a delicate thing for them to go to college in the first place,” Perry said. “A lot of things have to go right.”

Pandemic’s ripple effect on families

But unfortunately, many of these families may have suffered a job or income loss, or they may have taken on more child care duties at home because the pandemic closed K-12 schools and day care centers, he said.

The lower application numbers also coincide with enrollment decreases across the community colleges, Perry said. California’s public two-year colleges, which serve mostly low-income students, are seeing a 9.2% decline in enrollment this fall. Community college enrollment nationally has fallen 9.5%.

“We have some real fears as far as this group that didn’t enter college with their normal cohort,” he said. “This will affect us over the next five to 10 years … we don’t know how many of them who would’ve entered college now may never come back.”

California Dream Act application

What is looking better across the state is the number of students completing a California Dream Act application. So far, at least 7,792 students completed a Dream Act application as of Nov. 16 compared to 6,056 students this time last year. Students who complete a FASFA can qualify for Cal Grants, federal Pell Grants and other college financial aid. The California Dream Act application allows students who are undocumented or who participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for state financial aid. The maximum Pell Grant for 2021 is $6,345. Cal Grants come in a variety of amounts depending on the college, students’ income and Grade Point Average.

The decrease statewide in FAFSA applications mirrors a troubling trend nationally. Through Nov. 13, only 21% of high school seniors, or 792,283, had completed the application — a 16% decline from last year, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Although the FAFSA has simplified and become easier over the past several years to complete, it still remains overwhelming for first-generation students or those who don’t have all the proper tax information available particularly if they don’t have someone to guide them through the process. That guidance may be harder to come by this year as high schools and nonprofit organizations have had to transition to providing virtual assistance.

Hector Rodriguez, 19, a second-year student at Merritt College in Oakland, hasn’t completed a FAFSA this year and didn’t submit one last year. Rodriguez said the application is difficult, and he needs assistance to complete the form, mainly because his parents are undocumented residents, and they are unable to help him gather the needed documents. Students who are U.S. citizens, but may have undocumented parents, do qualify for federal financial aid.

Hector Rodriguez attends Merritt College in Oakland.

“I’m planning to apply, but I haven’t yet because it’s a really confusing process,” he said.

Last year, he learned he could receive help through the Alameda County Office of Education, but he didn’t follow up because he was overwhelmed and confused, Rodriguez said. That meant he went without financial assistance for his first year of college and it forced his parents to help him cover the cost of his classes.

But this year, he really needs the extra help. He lost one job because of the pandemic and has limited time for more work since he’s helping to take care of his nephew. Rodriguez, who aspires to become an art teacher, found new employment for FedEx making $21 an hour, but that covers bills and groceries and leaves little to cover college tuition.

“I really want to reduce the amount of money my parents have to pay for college,” he said. “I don’t want them to worry about my financial support, and I want to prove that I can do things on my own and that they don’t always have to take care of me.”

This year, there is also a lot of misinformation about the amount of financial aid available and what students need to complete the application.

The commission has been getting many questions about whether FAFSA or Cal Grant funding has run out and it hasn’t, said Jake Brymner, director of government relations and external affairs for the commission.

“Federal aid functions as an entitlement,” he said. “You have need and are eligible, then that payment will come through.”

The same is true for Cal Grants, he said. Although campus financial aid is more variable and can be difficult to understand, students should contact their university’s financial aid office.

One other misconception the commission is combating is concern over whether there is less aid for distance learning.

“Financial aid functions the same way whether distance-learning or on campus,” Brymner said. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s not eligible.”

Student outreach efforts

Many of the methods used to encourage students to complete the FAFSA have changed because of the pandemic. The commission, for example, offered Cash for College workshops to assist students and families with completing the FAFSA and Dream Act applications. Those workshops have now moved into a virtual setting with webinars offered by financial aid experts.

The commission is also starting a public service announcement campaign to encourage celebrities and social media influencers to record themselves talking about the importance of the FAFSA and meeting the application deadlines, said Michael Lemus, communications manager for the commission.

When the FAFSA application season began in October, Jessica Ramos said her Oakland high school heavily encouraged students to complete the form. But, in the weeks since, that has stopped. The priority financial aid deadline for the 2021-22 academic year in California is March 2; however, colleges will accept applications throughout the year.

“The day it came out, my school was putting a lot of pressure on us,” she said. “There were emails after emails and teachers spamming you to schedule appointments, which was hella dope, and I’m not going to deny that it was very useful.”

But now that the holidays are approaching, much of that encouragement has “died off,” she said, referring to the lack of urgency people have as they relax around the holidays.

Ramos said she found a lot of helpful information on social media.

“There were so many resources on social media telling you how to send your FAFSA form,” she said.

Ramos, who is applying to multiple University of California, California State University institutions, and “about 20 private schools,” including Stanford University, said she needs the financial assistance.

“I’m going to shoot my shot broadly and see if I get any bites,” she said. “I don’t want to take out any loans. I am planning to go to medical school or teach. … I’m looking for any full ride. … I don’t want my parents to pay for it.”

Story originally published by EdSource.