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When most high school seniors were planning for college in the fall, 18-year-old Lizneida Fermin was juggling her job at a local coffee shop and making sure her grandmother and aunts who had contracted COVID-19 had the supplies and food they needed to stay safe.
The e-mails from guidance counselors reminding her to fill out her college financial aid forms kept piling up, but Fermin, a senior at Lawrence High School, was just too overwhelmed. “Every day was really hard to get up and focus on school when I was doing my own thing,” she said.
Across Massachusetts, high schools that serve predominantly Black and Latino students have seen some of the steepest declines in the number of seniors submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, during the pandemic.
The trend has heightened fears that the already glaring racial gaps in college enrollment could deepen and leave communities of color behind in a future economic recovery. FAFSA completion is an early indicator of a high school senior’s intent to go to college.
FAFSA is crucial for loans, grants, and scholarships. Deadlines to complete it vary by state and school — the deadline for state aid in Massachusetts is May 1, but many colleges require the document in March.
Statewide, the number of students completing the document is down by 7 percent from last year, but in high schools where students likely need the money the most, it has dropped by two or three times that rate.
Fermin eventually collected the necessary tax information from her mother, a housekeeper, and waded through the more than 100 unfamiliar financial questions to complete the application in January. But dozens of her classmates at Lawrence High still haven’t filed the documents that can help them qualify for federal, state, and college aid, likely putting their plans for a degree at risk.
At Lawrence High, where 94 percent of students are Latino, the number of seniors who have filled out the forms to qualify for college financial aid is down by 37 percent from the same time last year, according to the federal government.
At Brockton High School, where three out of four students are either Black or Latino, FAFSA completions are down by 17 percent. They are down by 18 percent at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where more than 40 percent of students are Black or Latino.
Higher education experts and high school counselors worry that the declines are a troubling sign for fall college enrollment, particularly at Massachusetts public colleges and community colleges that educate many of the state’s low-income students and people of color.
“We’ve got a slow moving train wreck in the works,” said Lane Glenn, the president of Northern Essex Community College.
The state’s economy has long relied on a college-educated workforce, and those without a degree are often stuck in low-paying jobs and unable to move up the economic ladder, Glenn said.
He has been calling high school superintendents in neighboring communities offering to help seniors complete aid applications.
“If they’re sidetracked completely, it’s going to be bad in the long run,” Glenn said. “It’s going to be damaging for them and their communities.”
The pandemic has already devastated the college plans of many Black and Latino students in Massachusetts, with enrollment of first-year students among those groups down last fall by one-third.
This upcoming fall could be worse.
At Bridgewater State University, first-year applications among Black and Cape Verdean students for the next academic year are down 22 percent, while for Latino students they have fallen by 13 percent, said Fred Clark, president of Bridgewater State.
Many of the school’s students come from Brockton High, and the ties are so strong that the college in 2019 opened a recruiting office next to the high school cafeteria.
But Brockton students haven’t physically been in school for a year, and guidance counselors and college advisers are communicating by text messages, e-mails, and virtual meetings.
Guidance counselors and nonprofits that help students with the college application process rely on seeing students in hallways and reminding them to turn in their forms, sitting by their side as they fill out the FAFSA, and keeping them updated on any additional documents they may need to submit.
But the pandemic has severed many of those in-person connections, said Catherine Leger, the coordinator of guidance for Brockton public schools.
Brockton High is bringing students back for in-person learning this month, but the counselor offices are too small to hold meetings, so many will likely continue advising students virtually, she said.
Leger said she has seen student engagement wane during remote learning. The high school’s college fairs used to attract dozens of students who wanted to chat with recruiters, but the virtual fairs drew only a handful of seniors, she said.
The pandemic and online learning have made it difficult for students to imagine what college will be like this fall, making it hard to keep them motivated, Leger said.
Many aren’t filling out the FAFSA or college applications because they are delaying their plans due to financial worries. Their parents lost jobs or the student wasn’t able to get part-time work and save money for college, she said.
“It’s hard to envision your dreams,” Leger said. “They’re not applying to schools as fast and as furious.”
As part of the pandemic relief package, Congress in December passed legislation to simplify the FAFSA form, including by reducing the number of questions from 108 to 36. But those changes won’t go into effect until July 2023.
Colleges, too, have eased some of their application requirements, such as temporarily waiving SAT and ACT tests. That has helped the top-tier schools, which have seen applications soar.
But state and community colleges, which accept many of the students who apply, remain uncertain about who will enroll this fall. Some promise to be flexible with deadlines for FAFSA.
Madeline Aquino, 17, a Lawrence High senior, couldn’t grab time with her parents to go over family financial matters until February. Her parents, who run a bodega and usually work long hours, got sick with COVID-19. While the family was home quarantined, she was able to walk her mom through the form and work with a counselor online.
“It was all me, and it was really stressful,” Aquino said.