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FAFSA Submissions Plummet: What It Means for You

Here’s one impact of the pandemic most people didn’t see coming: FAFSA submissions have declined this year. A lot.

That’s a bad sign for a few reasons. We’ve got the details and what you need to know about how it impacts your own college application process.


What's causing the drop in FAFSA submissions?

Here’s the scoop: Nationwide, FAFSA submissions are down 12% compared to the prior year. Believe it or not, that’s a slight improvement from the fall when applications rates were down nearly 17%.

Of even more concern, the decline in FAFSA applications was highest among high schools with many low-income students and/or minority students, as compared to wealthier or majority-white schools. Rural schools also saw greater declines in applications than schools in urban and suburban areas.

Similarly, the Common App reported an increase in total submissions this past year. But of those, the number of applicants with incomes low enough to have the fee waived, or with parents who did not attend college, were down 2% and 3% respectively.

During the same period, some of the most selective colleges and universities have seen significant increases in the percentage of students applying through early decision—a program that typically benefits students with higher family incomes.

Taken together, it paints a grim picture for everyone: Students who may postpone (or give up) their academic goals, colleges that have to scramble to fill seats, and a country with a declining number of college students even as education is increasingly important to remain competitive in both the individual job market and the world economy.

See also: How Does FAFSA Work?

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Why is it happening?

It’s been a tough year. We all know that. Many families are facing financial strain from lost income during the pandemic. So, you’d think FAFSA submissions would be up while more people seek help paying for college.

But the FAFSA is complicated to fill out. At many schools, programs meant to help students and parents make sense of the form have been reduced or canceled due to the pandemic. School counselors are stretched thinner and trying to help students remotely. And parents who are balancing some combination of remote work, looking for work after being laid off, dealing with health issues, and juggling child or elder care, may struggle to provide help to their older kids who are trying to fill out the FAFSA and applications.

Faced with those issues and  financial pressures, a dislike of remote learning, and general pandemic stress it’s not hard to understand why some students might feel overwhelmed by the process.

See also: Step-By-Step Guide to Completing the FAFSA

What it means for your child

It might be hard. It might feel overwhelming. But if you want your kid to attend college, you have to get that FAFSA submitted.

Your child can’t get aid that they don’t apply for. And the FAFSA is the only way to qualify for most kinds of aid, including federal grants, federal loans, work-study, and even some state- and college-based aid.

If your family don’t submit a FAFSA your options for receiving any financial aid are severely restricted.

Some students, especially those from families with lower incomes, or families experiencing a temporary financial crunch, assume they can’t afford college even with aid. That’s not necessarily the case. Bottom line: There’s no way to predict how much aid you might receive unless you get that FAFSA turned in.

The earlier you fill out the FAFSA, the better your odds of getting a larger aid package. If you’ll be applying next year, make plans to submit the FAFSA early. (The submission window opens on Oct. 1 each year.) If they didn’t submit early this year, it’s not too late! They have until June 30 to submit for the upcoming school year.

Other aid factors in your favor

There is one piece of potential good news. Colleges have been financially hurt by the pandemic as well. Many of them are offering more substantial merit aid to get seats filled. There have been reports of students—not necessarily those at the top of their classes—getting as much as $10k more in aid than they’d typically would.

Again: Your kid can’t get their piece of the pie if they don’t apply.

Another wrinkle is that after the past year of public conversations about the role of race in our society, many colleges have said they’re more committed to creating diverse, inclusive classes.

If schools mean that, they should be looking more closely at applicant pools to ensure they’re including qualified students from lower-income or minority high schools. But at least this year, it looks like there will be fewer of those students applying. If your child belongs to an underrepresented group make sure they don’t miss their shot by staying on the sidelines.  

See also: What is Merit-Based Aid?

Other financial resources are available

If your does apply and doesn’t receive as much aid as you hoped, your family still has options.

For starters, a lot of people don’t realize it, but you can write a letter to appeal your financial aid —it works more than you might think.

Scholarships are also a great source of essentially free money—and for many of them, students don’t have to be a straight-A student, a top jock, or write 15,000 different essays to qualify.

If, after all the aid and scholarships you can get are accounted for, the difference between what your family is expected to pay and what you can pay isn’t too big, we have suggestions on how to bridge the gap. For larger tuition gaps, you still have options to keep your college hopes alive without breaking the bank.

Of course, even after all these steps, there’s a good chance student loans will play a role in helping to finance your child's education. (If so, they'll have lots of company.) So, check out our guide to the best private lenders and how they can help your son or daughter achieve their goals.  

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