Postsecondary enrollment declines need to be reversed
By Damian Ramsey
Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a nationwide drop in the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and enrolling in postsecondary institutions. Postsecondary enrollment is fundamental to the establishment of a skilled and educated workforce, and a thriving local economy. To gain a better understanding of the pandemic’s impact on FAFSA completion and enrollment trends in the Metro Atlanta region, Learn4Life (L4L) commissioned a study by Bellwether Education Partners that seeks to bring awareness to the issue and identify potential bright spots to reverse this trend.
The study found that over the pandemic, national postsecondary enrollment declines nearly doubled (-1.3% in 2019 to -2.5% in 2020), and national FAFSA completion rates dropped 3%, translating to more than a quarter of a million fewer FAFSA applications. At 4 percent, regional FAFSA completion declines have outpaced the rest of the country. About 1,100 fewer students in Metro Atlanta applied for FAFSA this year compared to last.
A prerequisite to obtaining an affordable or even debt free degree, the FAFSA helps determine eligibility for financial aid to pay for college (2-year, 4-years, or technical programs). Securing this aid, which comes in the form of low-cost loans, grants, work-study, and in some cases, state and institutional funding, increases postsecondary enrollment by 35%, and every additional $1000 in financial aid increases postsecondary persistence rates by 4%. Moreover, college graduates in Georgia earn on average $850,000 more over their careers than diploma holders do, contributing $2M to the state’s GDP.
Unfortunately, those who would most benefit from financial aid, low-income students and students of color, have historically been the least likely to apply. In 2021, the study found only 40% of students in high poverty schools had taken this critical step to secure funding to make postsecondary school affordable. Common deterrents have included limited knowledge about what the FAFSA is and who is eligible for aid, feelings that the application is too cumbersome, concerns about incurring loan debt, and for undocumented students and families, fear of revealing their status to the government.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded existing concerns. Worries about family financial well-being due to income reduction and job loss have compelled many students to question the viability of college. The study found that 44% of parents said that they cannot afford to pay as much of their child’s education as they had originally planned, and 21% of low-income students said money from their jobs is needed to support their family rather than paying for college expenses. Students are prioritizing the immediate needs of their families over the long-term benefits of a college degree, and so postsecondary enrollment has taken a back seat.
Another set of challenges to FAFSA completion are strained resources within high schools. School counselors, who were already struggling to provide adequate financial advising to caseloads nearly twice the recommended ratio of 1:250, have even less time since the pandemic to assist students with FAFSA or postsecondary planning. Supporting students and families through pandemic-related grief, job loss, and food and housing insecurity, overseeing social emotional learning (SEL), and promoting restorative justice, are a handful 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 provided support when applying for financial aid or college, and remote learning disconnected students from the normal support they may have received prior to the pandemic. As a result, navigating the complex financial aid process is all but impossible for too many students, especially those in high-poverty, under-resourced schools.
To help address these inequities, Learn4Life has joined forces with United Way’s College Bound Initiative and The Scholarship Academy. Together, they are harnessing the power of collective impact to offer a comprehensive suite of supports to add capacity to school counseling teams in high-poverty schools throughout the region: free FAFSA training for staff and community volunteers, in-person and virtual FAFSA completion events, one-to-one office hours, marketing materials, scholarship resources, and incentives for completion.
Given the impact of FAFSA completion on postsecondary success, decisive action must occur to reverse regional submission declines, put more students back on track to choice-filled careers, and protect the vitality of Metro Atlanta’s workforce and economy. By bringing awareness to the issue of postsecondary enrollment decline in our region, Learn4Life hopes to motivate local organizations to target resources and interventions to set more students (especially those furthest from opportunity) on a path toward postsecondary success.
For more detail on this analysis and possible solutions, please access the complete study.
If you are a parent, or from a school, nonprofit, community organization, or business, and you would like to join our collective impact work to improve postsecondary outcomes in Metro Atlanta, let us know here. We would love to have your voice at the table.