By Damien Ramsay
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a nationwide decline in the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and enrolling in post-secondary institutions. Post-secondary enrollment is essential to creating a skilled and educated workforce and a thriving local economy. To gain a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic on FAFSA completion and enrollment trends in the metro Atlanta area, Learn4Life (L4L) commissioned study by Bellwether Education Partners seeking to raise awareness of the issue and identify potential bright spots to reverse this trend.
Over the course of the pandemic, the study finds, national post-secondary enrollment has nearly doubled (-1.3% in 2019 to -2.5% in 2020), and national FAFSA completion rates have fallen by 3%, reducing the number of FAFSA applications by more than a quarter of a million. At 4 percent, declines in regional FAFSA completion outpaced the rest of the country. About 1,100 fewer metro Atlanta students applied for the FAFSA this year than last year.
A prerequisite for an affordable or even debt-free degree, the FAFSA helps determine eligibility for financial aid to pay for college (2 years, 4 years, or technical programs). Securing this assistance, which comes in the form of low-cost loans, grants, work-study and, in some cases, government and institutional funding, increases post-secondary enrollment by 35%, and Every additional $1,000 in financial aid increases post-secondary persistence rates by 4%.. Furthermore, Georgia college graduates earn on average $850,000 more over their career than diploma holders, and contribute $2 million to the state’s GDP.
Unfortunately, those who would benefit most from financial assistance, low-income students and students of color, have historically been the least likely to apply. In 2021, the study found that only 40% of students in high-poverty schools took the critical step of securing funding to make post-secondary school affordable. Common barriers included limited knowledge of what the FAFSA is and who qualifies for assistance, the feeling that the application is too stressful, concerns about taking on loan debt, and, for undocumented students and families, the fear of disclosing their status to the government.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing concerns. Concerns about the family’s financial well-being due to low income and job loss have led many students to question the viability of the college. The study found that 44% of parents said they couldn’t pay as much for their children’s education as they originally planned, and 21% of low-income students said money from their jobs was needed to support their family rather than pay for it. college expenses. Students prioritize the immediate needs of their families over the long-term benefits of a college degreeThus, high school enrollment has taken a place in the back.
Another set of challenges to completing the FAFSA are resource pressures within high schools. School counselors, who were already struggling to provide enough financial advice for the number of cases, nearly double the recommended 1:250 ratio, have had less time since the pandemic to help students with FAFSA or post-secondary planning. Supporting students and families through pandemic-related grief, job losses, food and housing insecurity, stewarding social-emotional learning (SEL), and promoting restorative justice are a few of the things that have taken precedence for counselors during the COVID-19 crisis. Only 38 percent of seniors in 2021 reported that their schools offered support when applying for financial or college aid, and that distance learning separated students from the regular support they might have received before the pandemic. As a result, navigating the complex financial aid process is impossible for far too many students, especially those living in extreme poverty and under-resourced schools.
To help address these inequalities, Learn4Life has teamed up with United Way’s College Bound Initiative And Scholarship Academy. Together, they harness the power of collective impact to provide a comprehensive suite of support to add capacity to school counseling teams in extremely poor schools across the region: free FAFSA training for staff and community volunteers, in-person and virtual FAFSA completion events, one-on-one hours, marketing materials, and grant resources Tuition and completion incentives.
Given the impact of completing the FAFSA on post-secondary success, decisive action must be taken to reverse regional application denials, get more students back on track toward careers filled with choice, and protect the vitality of Metro Atlanta’s workforce and economy. By raising awareness of the issue of declining post-secondary enrollment in our region, Learn4Life hopes to motivate local organizations to target resources and interventions to put more students (particularly those furthest from opportunity) on the path to post-secondary success.
For more details on this analysis and possible solutions, please access the full file study.
If you’re a parent, from a school, nonprofit, community organization or company, and would like to join our collective impact work to improve post-secondary outcomes in Metro Atlanta, let us know Here. We would like to have your vote on the table.