Amid all of the challenges facing college students this year due to COVID-19 related closings and cancellations, one of the major considerations for those already enrolled, or in the process of enrolling, is financial aid.
At this point in the school year, continuing students and incoming freshmen are in the process of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or have already completed the application.
Some institutions had early deadlines, and others have a cutoff of May 1, although a number of colleges have announced delays because of the global health emergency. According to Dr. James Applegate, visiting professor at Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy, there is a need for involvement from the federal level to allow the FAFSA information to be updated.
“For many of the students there probably has been a change in their families’ financial situations in the last couple of months and I think there needs to be a streamlined process in which they can, if they have already applied, update that information,” Applegate told Diverse, adding that all financial aid determinations should be “based on the status of the family during and post-COVID.” He added that consideration should be given to the fact that not all households have internet access.
Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), told Diverse that, based on his organization’s tracking of FAFSA completion, the rates were already lower than last year, and “starting March 20th, the first data week after states started closing schools, we did see quite a sharp decline in FAFSA completions across the country.” DeBaun added that “there are a lot of things that can affect FAFSA completion, but the big-ticket item here is coronavirus and statewide school closures.”
Both DeBaun and Applegate are concerned that the students who have not completed the applications are those who need financial aid most, students from lower-income households and first-generation college enrollees. “These students are most likely to be eligible for Pell grants, so it represents a major problem of access that affects not only students,” DeBaun said. “It’s also a challenge institutionally when the Pell grant is the cornerstone of their financial aid packages.”
DeBaun notes that his organization, NCAN, recently published a five-step guide to help high school seniors transition to two-year and four-year institutions. It contains a link to a list of COVID-19 resources for students and their families.
He said although high school guidance counselors may have been deployed to other duties, schools need to determine which students are planning to go where and which students may need help filling out their FAFSA. “A lot of institutions are pushing back that May 1st deadline now, so students need to know that they don’t have to make that decision right now.”
States and individual institutions are making various determinations about FAFSA, so students and their families should check websites regularly for updates.
In addition to individual colleges, a number of non-profit organizations and agencies offer information about FAFSA. The federal site, Federal Student Aid, and Benefits Data Trust’s student-oriented site are among them.
The Indiana Commission for Higher Education extended its deadline for the 2020-21 FAFSA beyond the original April 15 date after finding that fewer students applied this year amid the pandemic. The commission announced that it will extend its filing deadline only as long as funding remains available, according to a commission news release. Students who had not yet filed were warned, “The Commission will consider students who file past the original deadline, however, limited funding is available on a first-come basis.”
The University of Nebraska recently stated that it has extended this year’s priority FAFSA deadline to June 1 in conjunction with the major announcement that its new program, “Nebraska Promise,” will guarantee a tuition-free education for Nebraskan undergraduate students “with family incomes of $60,000 or less or are Pell Grant eligible.”
At Howard University, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tashni-Ann Dubroy said via e-mail that the FAFSA deadline for new freshmen was in February 2020 and that students needed to complete a FAFSA before they could receive full need and merit-based financial aid packages. “Our FAFSA completion rates have not declined when compared to last year’s numbers,” she wrote, adding, “We are not seeing the same declining trends that some of our peers are seeing, but it is still early in the enrollment cycle.”
At South Carolina State University, the office of financial aid has posted a detailed guide, “12 Steps to a Successful Financial Aid Experience,” which states the May 1 deadline along with other important information.
Applegate pointed out that proactive efforts are needed amid the pandemic to keep the most vulnerable students on track, and he called upon the Department of Education to extend guidance recommending extended FAFSA deadlines. “Many of the students we’re talking about, the ones who need the federal aid, are also those who need internet access,” Applegate said. “These are the students whose parents have lost their jobs. So, as usual, unless we don’t act quickly and aggressively, the students we care about the most are going to be hurt the most.”