Scenes at Trinity College on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Due to spike in COVID-19 cases, in-person classes are switched to online. The majority of students were seen wearing masks on campus. Yehyun Kim /

Fewer high school seniors this year have submitted the standard college financial aid form, largely due to the uncertainty of higher education in the COVID era, experts say.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, applications this year have declined in Connecticut by 16.6%, according to federal data through Nov. 27.

Just over 13,100 students in the state have completed applications, or about 31% of the 2021 graduating class. Nationally, 23% of seniors have completed FAFSA applications, according to an analysis by Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network.

At this point last year, Connecticut residents had submitted 15,726 FAFSA applications, representing just over half of all FAFSA applications completed in the previous cycle, according to a CT Mirror analysis of data provided by the National College Attainment Network. Just over 70% of the graduating class last year ultimately submitted FAFSA applications.

School counselors are saying the limited access students have had to speak with them in-person due to COVID, and that counselors have focused more on social and emotional health, are some of the reasons why application completion rates are low this school year.

“Students need more support to adjust to these new times,” said Clewiston Challenger, an assistant professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education. “So school counselors, by themselves, are doing more checking on students for mental health and wellness, providing more support and making sure they’re coming to school in a virtual setting, which then leaves college exploration to be also in the background and not a top priority, which is unfortunate.”

Students are encouraged to apply for FAFSA each year to be eligible for federal, and sometimes state, financial aid while attending college. The number of students who complete FAFSA can also be an indication for enrollment numbers at colleges and universities, since students are required to put the school they attend, or prospective schools, on the application.

School counselors are continuing to find ways to balance checking-in on students’ mental health with helping them apply for FAFSA.

Michelle Catucci, a high school counselor in Cheshire and executive director of the Connecticut School Counselor Association, said her district continued to host events that are traditionally in-person, like financial aid night, online this fall.

But because everything is being done virtually or electronically, Catucci said, it’s hard for counselors to know if families are using the resources sent to help them and their students. She added that in-person events make it easier for families to ask questions and begin important conversations about the FAFSA process.

“I think what we’re struggling with is the feedback on how many people actually utilize that information,” she said. “Every time I send something out, I’ll get a few emails back from parents being like ‘this is really helpful, or I have a follow-up question.’ But it’s definitely from a small percentage of my parents. It’s not all of them.”

Students feel uncertain

Another factor contributing to the drop in FAFSA applications is that there’s a lot of uncertainty coming from high school seniors, many of whom are learning from home as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the state, Catucci said.

Students are not sure whether they want to attend college directly after graduating from high school, knowing that their higher education experience could be in a remote setting if the pandemic persists, she said.

“That’s not the experience they thought they would be getting,” Catucci said, adding that this uncertainty leads to students stalling or missing early deadlines for applications like FAFSA, which is something school counselors do not typically see.

“There’s a contributing factor that just students are making different choices about — ‘Hey, I’m not gonna apply for financial aid this year, because I’m not sure I’m going to go to school next year.’”

Challenger, whose expertise is in urban school counseling, said students are also worried about whether their grades from this school year are “attractive enough” to go to college — and, overall, students are lacking motivation.

He added that the graduate students doing school counseling internships at UConn are not only hearing high school seniors question whether they want to go to college, but families are not sure they can afford college next year, even with FAFSA — and especially in districts like East Hartford, Hartford and New Britain, where over 60% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

He explained that the economy and unemployment can play a big role in a student’s decision to continue their education after high school, because if they are low-income, their families “reconsider the value of college based on their pocketbooks.”

“So if they cannot afford college now or may have lost their job … then college may not be a top priority right now. Going into the workforce might be a top priority,” Challenger said.

What the state is doing 

One concern is that students from lower-income families aren’t applying for FAFSA.

“I do know how critical FAFSA completion is, especially for students of color, to college,” said State Board of Education Vice Chair Estela López, who was interim provost of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System in 2015. “I wanted to make sure that these schools have the resources to identify who is not completing FAFSA, and I knew that Connecticut had access to that type of information, so I was promoting them be made aware they could do that.”

State Department of Education Director of Innovation and Partnerships Chris Soto said the department is working on launching a public FAFSA data dashboard in January about statewide FAFSA completion rates.

On Wednesday, the state announced a FAFSA completion challenge that it hopes will encourage districts to increase the 2021 FAFSA completion rate by at least 5% more than the class of 2020. The challenge is open to all districts, but 21 districts will be eligible to win a grant to help them with FAFSA completion for the 2021-2022 school year.

The 21 districts that were selected had FAFSA completion rates below 50% during the 2019-2020 school year, as well as free and reduced lunch rates above 45% and a senior class larger than 50 students.

The four districts with the highest percentage-point growth will be awarded and recognized in September 2021, and two districts will receive a grant.

Soto said while they know districts are dealing with a lot due to the pandemic and trying to determine which learning model is best, the state wanted to call attention to the issue and ensure that students get “the best post-secondary opportunities that they deserve.”

“We’re at a 16% difference compared to last year, and when you think about it, that is before Christmas break, when most of your ambitious students are filling out the FAFSA,” Soto said, adding that the students who are usually motivated to fill out the FAFSA form do so in October, November and December. “So if we have a decline right now, then we have to be very vigilant in the spring so that decline doesn’t continue.”

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

Kasturi was CT Mirror’s data reporter. She is a May 2020 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s master’s program in data journalism and holds a degree in comparative literature from Brown University, where she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Kasturi interned for publications in India.

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