Throughout this enrollment cycle, our team of enrollment experts and researchers has been carefully monitoring how COVID-19 has impacted students’ and families’ engagement with financial aid resources and ultimately, their FAFSA filings and college applications. Unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have only further exacerbated many of the challenges first-generation and low-income students face in filing their FAFSA and applying to college. Here’s what our survey found—and recommendations for how colleges and universities can support these students.
EAB surveyed high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors from February 23 to March 11, 2021. The results include responses from 15,291 students. Most students surveyed (91%) plan to enroll in a college or university after high school.
The survey included:
- First-generation: 20% first-generation students
- Household income: 22% $60,000 or less, 19% $60,001-$120,000, 17% $120,001 or more, and 42% unsure
- Residence: equally distributed in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West
- Ethnicity: 57% white, 23% Hispanic/Latinx, 14% Black, and 14% Asian
- High school class: 40% seniors, 40% juniors, 20% sophomores.
- Students, particularly first-generation and low-income students, don’t understand how financial aid could work for them. They often think they won’t qualify for aid and therefore don’t file.
- When they do file the FAFSA, it’s a challenging experience because they are often doing it on their own or with limited help.
- The strong support network comprised of college counselors, teachers, coaches, CBO’s, employers, and family members is more difficult to access due to COVID-19.
- The students and families who most need financial support to attend college are the least likely to have the kind of support and encouragement to file the FAFSA in the current environment.
We have more work to do
The good news is that over 80 percent of the high school seniors we surveyed have completed the FAFSA. But the survey data also show that the same trends we highlighted throughout the past summer and fall continue into the spring—and may translate to further enrollment challenges this coming fall. Notably, the percentage of low-income students who had yet to file but planned to was twice as high compared to higher-income students, at about 8%. The percentage of first-generation students who had yet to complete the FAFSA was even higher, at close to 11%.
This is consistent with the data we’ve seen from the Department of Education, which shows FAFSA filers nationally have been trailing since applications opened on October 1 and was still down about 9% as of early March. And FAFSA filing is lagging by greater margins among the Department of Education’s designation of low-income and high-minority high schools.
Surprisingly, almost 30% of the low-income students who did not plan to file a FAFSA said they did not think they would qualify for financial aid. And 10% of these students said either they did not have help or had trouble getting the required documentation, with another 3% indicating they missed the deadline. A recent webinar we offered through College Greenlight to CBO counselors corroborated these points for students they work with, particularly for students who had at least one parent who was a non-citizen.
Clearly, we have more work to do in communicating to students about the FAFSA.
Our Financial Aid Optimization team recommends schools:
- Be clear with students, parents, and counselors about what things should not prevent a student from filing.
- Proactively communicate how they can help families who have lost income and their willingness to provide support during the process—and be as flexible as possible around deadlines.
- Clearly communicate with students who are undocumented or who have parents who are undocumented about the FAFSA filing process.
What makes it difficult
Well over 30% of both first-generation and low-income students said completing the FASFA was difficult, a 10 to 15 point higher rate than other students. Latinx and Asian students reported the greatest difficulty, and while we can take some solace in the fact that a high percentage said it was not difficult to complete the FAFSA, those who did find it hard cited lack of parental support, difficulty acquiring tax information, confusing questions, income changes, and citizenship status as barriers in completing the FAFSA.
Make sure students understand that you are available to answer questions and it is very much ok to get assistance from your college or university to complete the FAFSA.
It takes a village
If we ever doubted the need to have a broad network helping students, including teachers, counselors, community-based organizations, and college representatives, our survey should put that doubt to rest. When we asked students who encouraged them to complete the FAFSA, both first-generation and low-income students cited high school counselors and teachers as the #1 and #3 most important, while parents were #2 and college representatives a very close #4. Parents topped the list for all students, and high school counselors, teachers, and college representatives came in right behind.
Importantly, when we asked who helped students complete the FAFSA, the difference between low-income students and higher-income students was stark. Almost 40% of first-generation students and 37% of low-income students said they completed the FAFSA themselves, compared to just 11% of higher-income students. About 15% of first-generation and low-income students said they got help from “other.” Who is the other? For low-income students, generally their high school counselor, but a vast network of teachers, coaches, family members, community-based organizations, and college reps were all cited.
We know that the largely virtual environment this fall put a halt to the typical in-person support network of financial aid nights, scholarship Saturdays, and casual contact in the hallways during the school day. Those in-person experiences meant students would find it hard to miss information about financial aid and could get their more personal and detailed questions answered.
Meet students where they are, both physically and in terms of helping them to understand even the most basic elements of the process. Personal outreach and removing unnecessary barriers are key in helping students.
In sum, the students and families who most need financial support to attend college are the least likely to have support and encouragement to file the FAFSA in the current environment. The support network comprised of counselors, teachers, coaches, CBOs, employers, and family members is much less available due to COVID—and students are paying the price.
9 lessons to communicate your value proposition to increasingly price-sensitive families
This whitepaper lays out clear and simple lessons enrollment leaders can follow to increase the persuasive power of their value messaging.