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Fewer students are applying for financial aid for college — a worrying sign about who will show up this fall

Leslie Castillo, a senior at Lawrence High School, was accepted to several universities for the fall. But because she's not yet completed her complicated federal financial aid form, she couldn't make a choice. Without the form, the colleges hadn't made grant and loan offers that would help Castillo pick the best and most affordable option.
Leslie Castillo, a senior at Lawrence High School, was accepted to several universities for the fall. But because she's not yet completed her complicated federal financial aid form, she couldn't make a choice. Without the form, the colleges hadn't made grant and loan offers that would help Castillo pick the best and most affordable option.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Hundreds of thousands of students across the country have failed to complete crucial federal financial aid forms this spring, alarming higher education experts who fear that the coronavirus pandemic will derail the college dreams of low-income families.

In Massachusetts, the traditional May 1 deadline to complete the forms and qualify for state financial aid passed with just 221,021 high school seniors and returning undergraduates submitting applications, down by nearly 10 percent from the previous year. The drop-off was sharpest in April, when nearly 12,000 fewer students than last year had finished their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as the forms are commonly known.

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“However you slice and dice it, it’s a terrible early indicator,” said Carlos Santiago, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education. “It’s really pretty disturbing.”

Earlier this month, Massachusetts extended its deadline to complete the FAFSA for state aid from May 1 to July 1, in the hopes that it will encourage more students to apply.

For many, filling out the complicated financial forms has likely fallen to the wayside amid Illnesses, parental job losses, and adjustments to online learning. With high schools and college campuses closed and services moving online, many students have been severed from day-to-day contact with guidance counselors and financial aid advisers who may have kept them on track.

Leslie Castillo, 18, was slowly completing her federal financial aid forms for college grants and loans earlier this year, but between her part-time restaurant job and her parents’ hectic work schedules, carving out time for the cumbersome documents was difficult.

Then Lawrence High School closed in mid-March and Castillo’s classes and school support programs went online. A few days later her mother, a nutritionist, was laid off, and then her father lost his job at a local factory. Soon after, the financial aid adviser who had been helping Castillo came down with COVID-19 and was out sick for two weeks.

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Other tasks took priority over FAFSA.

Castillo received offers from Pace University, Hofstra University, Penn State University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston, but she couldn’t make a choice. Without the FAFSA forms, the colleges hadn’t made financial aid offers that would help her pick the best and most affordable option.

“A lot of students are like me: They still don’t know where they’re headed, they still have a lot of questions. We’re not on campus, we’re not in school, and we’re not in our classes. It’s been hard,” said Castillo, who began focusing on completing her FAFSA in mid-May.

Nationwide, FAFSA completions for high school seniors was down 3 percent, with 61,000 fewer completing the documents, according to the most recent data available from the National College Attainment Network, which is tracking the applications.

Renewals of FAFSA, which have to be done every year, fell even further, dropping about 4 percent with 300,000 fewer college students completing the process, the network found.

FAFSA completion deadlines for federal aid are more flexible, but most colleges use the same forms to determine how much institutional aid to give a student, so they must be filled out before the start of the fall semester.

The FAFSA process can be time-consuming and students must submit historical family tax information. But the documents are also considered a barometer of who will show up on campus in the fall: students who complete their financial aid forms are more likely to attend college.

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Based on the trends this spring, many higher education officials fear that college enrollment will be down significantly, particularly among low-income, first-generation students, who can least afford higher education.

Nationwide, among returning college students, the steepest declines in completions were among the poorest students, those whose families earned less than $25,000 annually, which is particularly troublesome, said Kim Cook, the executive director of the attainment network.

During the last recession, workers with bachelor’s degrees were more able to weather the economic downturn. The students who slip from the college track now will be most at risk if the current downturn lasts even beyond the possible development of a vaccine for COVID-19, Cook said.

“I am concerned that students are not taking the steps to stay in the game,” she said. “It’s important to stay in the game and stay enrolled.”

High school and college counselors and organizations that advise low-income students on college affordability said they are trying to reach the ones who haven’t completed their FAFSAs and help them through the process. But some students aren’t returning phone calls or are missing e-mails in the flood of other school correspondence they are now receiving.

Traditionally, the students who fill out the forms late in the cycle are most at risk of missing out on higher education. They may be sitting on the fence about college, are less certain about their finances, or are likely to attend community college. Many are already on the margins, and a college education could help them climb the economic ladder.

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Usually, filling out the FAFSA is just the first step, and some students have to provide verification information to the colleges and even appeal for additional aid because their family’s financial situation has changed recently. Colleges are anticipating they will get more appeals this summer due to the coronavirus and job losses, illness, and other complications related to the pandemic.

Even those students who have filled out their forms are running into challenges because college aid offices themselves are also overwhelmed, said Sarah Place, a managing director of programs at Bottom Line, a Boston nonprofit that works with low-income students to get into college and earn their degrees.

Nivjana Minga, who is finishing her third year at Northeastern University, said she usually has to send additional information to the institution’s financial aid office after filling out the FAFSA form. That usually happens this time of year, and Minga has her financial aid confirmed midsummer. But this year, university officials have already warned her that the process will likely be delayed until July.

Without knowing how much she’ll have to take out in student loans until just before the start of school, Minga said, it’s hard to budget for the summer, and she’ll have very little time to appeal any charges to Northeastern.

“There have been times where I’ve had to pay over $3,000 to $4,000 for a semester and even that has been a strain,” Minga said. “For me, it helps to know ahead of time, so I can make plans on if I want to do a payment plan or withdraw loans. There’s a lot of decisions to be made before paying off the final product, and it just adds stress the longer I wait.”

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Even institutions that have seen strong FAFSA completion rates say that this year, it is no guarantee that students will enroll for upcoming classes.

At Bunker Hill Community College, 3 percent more students have completed their FAFSA so far this year, compared to the same time last year. But fewer students are enrolling in summer and fall classes, said Melissa Holster, executive director of financial aid.

Bunker Hill has offered online advising and registration, called students to check up on them, and provided them emergency funding to pay for Internet access so they can take classes this spring. But some of them have lost jobs and aren’t sure if they can keep taking courses, Holster said.

“Students really aren’t taking the next step. They want to go to back to school, but there are so many unknowns,” she said. “The average monthly Internet bill is $75. Our students choose between that and feeding their family, and they’re not able and not sure they can afford that come summer or fall.”

This summer it will be more crucial than ever for college financial aid officers and high school counselors to keep up with students to ensure they are prepared to enroll in the fall, higher education experts said.

Students whose parents have lost their jobs are likely going to feel pressure to save money or go to work instead of enrolling in college, said Robert Dais, director of Gear Up Massachusetts, a program aimed at helping high school students prepare for college run through the state Department of Higher Education.

Gear Up advisers work with students such as Castillo and help them apply to college and compare financial aid offers, and counsel them through the decision process. But after the pandemic shut down high schools, fewer students have asked for help. Students may have sent in deposits to their top choice school without realizing the full cost and by August, when the bills come due, may have buyer’s remorse and opt out of college entirely, Dais said.

“I see a lot of quagmire this summer,” Dais said.

Castillo, who hopes to major in business, is hoping to avoid those pitfalls. She was in touch with her Gear Up adviser in mid-May and completed her FAFSA form. The colleges that she got into have extended their commitment deadline to early June and Castillo hopes to have the aid offers soon to review.

“Right now," she said, "financial aid is what I’m waiting for and what I’m focused on.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.