This is the time of year when high schools across the country are beginning to schedule Financial Aid Night events. For many of those attending, along with their parents, it will be the first time they hear the term “FAFSA” (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
Now, imagine if you’d never learned about FAFSA or financial aid at all (grants, scholarships, institutional aid, work study funds, etc.) – something so crucial to affordable higher education, as aid is often dependent on completing the FAFSA.
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that financial aid applications and awards nationally are trending downward. From 2008 to 2013, there was a 33 percent increase in the number of students applying for federal financial assistance. But since 2013, the trend has reversed.
Connecticut is experiencing a similar decline in FAFSA completion. The second quarter of the 2016-2017 FAFSA cycle yielded 154,256 applications from Connecticut residents. Compared to the second quarter of the prior year (160,009), applications are down 3.6 percent.
At my institution, Manchester Community College (MCC), the number of students enrolled is down 2 percent as of September 2016 compared with September 2015, while federal financial aid applications are down 3.4 percent year over year.
Missing out on aid
So what’s going on? It is unlikely that the need for aid has decreased among our enrolled students. The more logical conclusion is that there is a major portion of our community college population are missing out on aid. They are not applying for and getting the assistance they probably qualify for and most likely need. These students and others like them may not be applying for aid because of pride or cultural sensibilities. One such demographic is the Hispanic population. As a group, they tend to be less likely than others to apply for aid, although fortunately at MCC some 79 percent of our Hispanic students do complete the FAFSA and most of them are awarded aid.
But it remains true that at MCC only a little more than 60 percent of students who qualify complete FAFSA. At the heart of it, many simply lack access to financial aid information.
Just today I was walking quickly past the bursar’s office when I overheard a student asking to drop a class. I backed up to ask the student why he was dropping a class. It turns out that “David” (not his real name) was enrolled in two classes, and one had a component of 20 required hours of service learning, which would have an impact on his hours at a job he needed to keep. I asked him if he knew about need-based and merit scholarships, retention grants and other financial support available. He had no idea. All he knew was that he wasn’t eligible for a Pell Grant after having completed the FAFSA. He seemed thoughtful as I walked away – a plan put into place to help him. He told me, “It really wasn’t about the 20 hours, I could fit that in with my job schedule – I just couldn’t afford the class.”
We can’t afford to lose even one student. Our communities need educated citizens.
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