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Drop in Student Aid Applications Tied to COVID

Researchers extrapolate from data in the California school system.

After the COVID-19 crisis hit in March 2020, federal student aid applications in the U.S. dropped sharply among potential first-year students, according to a study published in Educational Researcher.

Oded Gurantz and Christopher Wielga of the University of Missouri in Columbia used data from the California Student Aid Commission and the American Community Survey to study trends among college applicants in California. They compared trends in the total volume and characteristics of submissions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from mid-March through mid-August 2020, relative to three prior submission cycles. They also analyzed individuals’ background information to identify neighborhood income and ethnic characteristics.

They found that federal aid applications in California dropped 14 percent between mid-March and mid-August, compared to prior years. While there were also initial declines in the number of current undergraduate and graduate students submitting applications, this downward trend quickly recovered so that the number of applications overall ended up 8 percent higher compared to prior years.

The authors also found a 21 percent decline in submissions among incoming first-year undergraduates with no prior college experience and a 7 percent decline among those with some prior experience. Increases in submissions among continuing students were directly tied to grade level, the smallest being for incoming sophomores (1.9 percent) and the largest for students entering graduate programs (34.1 percent).


Applications from ZIP codes in the top third in terms of percentage of Black and Hispanic residents dropped five percent, while applications rose by 4 percent in neighborhoods in the middle third for Black and Hispanic residents.

“COVID is tough, and it makes sense that it may make potential first-year students feel they can’t go to college, due to either overwhelming commitments or an understandable judgment that online education may not suit them in the short-term,” says Gurantz, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s Truman School of Public Affairs. “But we know that short-term stop-outs often harm long-term outcomes, and in the long run it’s important that these students earn their degrees.”

When comparing neighborhood characteristics for FAFSA filers, Gurantz and Wielga found a 5 percent drop in applications from ZIP codes in the top third in terms of percentage of Black and Hispanic residents. In contrast, neighborhoods in the middle third for Black and Hispanic residents saw applications rise 4 percent. Neighborhoods in the bottom third saw applications rise 10 percent. Gurantz and Wielga found similar results with year-over-year declines in low-income ZIP codes and increases in high-income ZIP codes.

“Our results paint a bleak portrait, suggesting that without immediate investments in outreach and support, traditionally underrepresented students will be less likely to attend college and more likely to take on debt,” Gurantz says. “More outreach is needed to make sure that missing students find their way to college, and that current students who are struggling get the support they need.”

He adds, “The turmoil and economic uncertainty of the pandemic are creating substantial barriers to college entry, and the trend in FAFSA applications is likely to exacerbate enrollment gaps by income, race, and ethnicity.”

According to the authors, states could help increase FAFSA submissions by improving their early outreach to students, providing reminders, and flagging students who have not submitted by a specific date. The authors also suggest the federal government could consider simplifying the FAFSA process, reducing the number of individuals asked to provide additional documentation to verify income, or simplifying the appeals process. Extending deadlines for FAFSA submissions and college applications could also help to facilitate greater access.

“Providing additional funding to community colleges, which are experiencing the largest downturns in enrollment, may also be necessary,” Gurantz says. “These institutions will be central to promoting the kinds of programs and resources needed to ensure that more of these missing students are successful over the coming years, should they choose to return.”