In a typical year, Indianapolis school counselor Karen Matthews spends lunch breaks bribing high school seniors with free baked potatoes or nachos to come to her office and fill out college financial aid forms.
Matthews, who works at Beech Grove High School, said these “working lunches” have been her most successful tactic for encouraging completion of the federal aid application, which intimidates many of her students. The form requires answering over 100 questions and providing multiple records, including Social Security numbers, tax returns, and records of untaxed income.
“If we can just get them started, they realize it’s not that bad and they’ll usually finish it,” Matthews said.
Because of virtual learning and social distancing restrictions, Matthews had to pause her working lunches and other initiatives for 2½ semesters. At Beech Grove, only 33.8% of seniors have submitted the financial aid application this year, according to data from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
Statewide completion rates fell 6% compared with last year, even after the deadline extended from April 15 to Saturday. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is required for students to receive federal and state aid and, often, to qualify for scholarships and aid from colleges and private organizations.
With fewer students applying for financial aid, experts say they expect a correlating decline in college enrollment.
“It’s not just a drop in FAFSA,” Matthews said. “Fewer students applying to college means fewer filing the FAFSA.”
The proportion of college applicants at Beech Grove dropped by nearly 20 percentage points this year, according to data from Matthews.
While some students’ interest in college has waned because the pandemic has devastated finances, college enrollment had been declining in Indiana even before COVID-19.
An April report from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education found college enrollment fell below 60% of high school seniors for the first time since they began collecting data in 2009, with only 59% of Indiana seniors enrolling in higher education in 2019. Data for last year is not available, but almost certainly will reflect a steeper decline, the state agency noted.
Furthermore, the students who most need financial aid are the least likely to apply for it, state education officials noted. Students eligible for the Federal Pell Grant, the aid package for those with the highest financial needs, have lower FAFSA filing rates than the class of 2021 overall.
In Indiana, only two schools, both private, had 100% FAFSA participation as of Wednesday: Park Tudor in Marion County and University High School in Hamilton County, according to data from the commission.
Charlee Beasor of the higher education commission said it’s common for seniors to jump right into the workforce when the economy is strong, because they can find high-paying jobs. That promoted a decline in college enrollment before the pandemic, she said.
Beasor, associate commissioner for communications and outreach, and her colleagues had hoped the pandemic recession might encourage more students to pursue college degrees — but the opposite occurred.
Matthews said every year, fewer students at her school see college in their future, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.
She said fear of student debt scares off many. College tuition at most schools has risen steadily for years, and on top of that, the pandemic recession crippled many families’ finances. In a survey Matthews sent to her students last spring, almost one-third said at least one parent had lost their job due to COVID-19.
“You can see the wheels turning,” Matthews said. “They’re thinking, ‘At this point, is it worth the investment of time and debt when I could join the military?’”
Aside from monetary concerns, Matthews said academic performance and mental health suffered at Beech Grove during over a year of virtual schooling, as students lost the structure of in-person school that had kept them organized. Saddled with lower GPAs, she said more students doubt their ability to get into and succeed at schools.
Matthews said in past years, she and other school counselors often gave seniors the push they needed to apply to college or submit the FAFSA.
“My students need a lot of hand-holding through the college application process,” Matthews said. “Without me having the ability to call their butts down to my office and have this discussion and say, ‘Open up that Chromebook and let’s do this,’ fewer of them are going to do that.”
Flora Jones, postsecondary readiness director at Indianapolis Public Schools, said the pandemic triggered a drop in college planning in her district, too.
“We do believe that the pandemic has been a cause in the drop in FAFSA completion based on the need for many of our scholars to help support their families and contribute to the household income,” Jones said in an email. “It is also apparent that many students are losing interest in attending college at such a high cost with no campus experience due to COVID.”
Student performance at IPS schools has also dropped off, as more than 40% of high school students in the district have failed one or more core class.
Encouraging FAFSA completion was difficult before; the pandemic made it harder.
College Goal Sunday, offering students and parents personal help in filling out the financial aid application, normally took place at 40 locations across the state. This year it went online, and attendance plummeted, said Bill Wozniak, co-chair of College Goal Sunday.
Without help from experts, the FAFSA fills parents with terror, Wozniak said. “They loathe going through the process, and then afterward they’re like, ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad.’”
Before they get to the FAFSA, students have to want to apply to college, Beasor of the education commission said. It’s important to show them the long-term benefits of more schooling, she said.
“If you have a bachelor’s degree in Indiana compared to just a high school diploma, you’re likely to make $1 million more over your lifetime,” Beasor said. “It’s that message, the ‘Look at the long-term picture,’ over the immediate ability to jump right into the workforce.”
Upcoming federal changes will make the FAFSA easier to fill out, Beasor said. In October 2022, the form will include fewer than 40 questions instead of over 100, and respondents won’t have to retrieve their own IRS tax records anymore — a new system will automatically submit them.
“The most important thing is that it’s going to be a simpler process for students and families,” Beasor said. “Hopefully that’ll help balance out the longer-term impacts.”
Correction: May 17, 2021: A previous version of this story said 40% of IPS high school students had failed more than one core class. Those students had failed one or more core class.