Larry Gordon / EdSource Today

The opening page for the online FAFSA application.

Larry Gordon / EdSource Today

The opening page for the online FAFSA application.

This story has been updated to reflect new information from the California Student Aid Commission about Dream Act filings.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of many high school and college students, but now there are fears that they may not be able to apply for college financial aid.

This year, fewer freshmen this year apply for state and federal grants across California and nationally.

Early application numbers for the Free State Student Aid Application (FAFSA), which launched on October 1, have declined compared to that time last year among students who would be freshmen next fall.

As of November 30 this year, more California students have filed a FAFSA than last year, according to the California Student Aid Commission. As of November 30, 2019, 520,220 California high school and university students had submitted aid requests, compared with 490,919 students.

Despite this surge, applications from California high school students, which include freshmen that include high school graduates, have declined significantly. As of November 30, 186,047 of these students had submitted an application, compared with 208,193 of them at the same time last year.

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“The numbers are a bit behind,” said Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data at the commission. “We’re finding far fewer undergraduate students submitting FAFSA and far fewer lower-income students. What brings the numbers up is a lot more senior fourth and fifth year (college) and a lot more graduate students. “

The worrying trend shows that some students, especially those facing financial challenges in the current pandemic economy, may delay or give up college altogether. A commission study conducted over the last two weeks in May found that 75% of high school graduates in 2020 were concerned about their personal financial situation, and 71% of college students said some or all of the pandemic caused them Having lost income.

And for many low-income and first-time students, “getting to college is a tricky business for them,” Perry said. “A lot of things have to go right.”

Unfortunately, many of these families may have lost jobs, lost income, or may have taken on more childcare responsibilities at home because the pandemic closed K-12 schools and daycare, he said.

The lower application numbers also coincide with the decline in enrollments in community colleges, Perry said. California’s public two-year colleges, which primarily cater to low-income students, saw enrollments fall 9.2% this fall. Enrollment in community colleges has decreased nationally by 9.5%.

“We have some real fears about this group who didn’t go to college with their normal cohort,” he said. “This will affect us for the next five to ten years. We don’t know how many of you who would have entered college now may never return.”

The California Dream Act applications are also unavailable. So far, 6,056 students have completed a Dream Act application on November 16, compared with 7,792 students at this point last year. Students who complete a FASFA can qualify for Cal Grants, Federal Pell Grants, and other college grants. Applying under the California Dream Act allows undocumented students or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program participants to qualify for government grants. The maximum Pell Grant for 2021 is $ 6,345. Cal grants come in different amounts depending on college, student income, and grade point average.

The nationwide decline in FAFSA applications reflects a worrying national trend. As of Nov. 13, only 21% of high school graduates, or 792,283, had completed the application – a 16% decrease from a year earlier, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Although the FAFSA has simplified itself in recent years and is easier to complete, it still remains overwhelming for first-generation students or those who don’t have the correct tax information, especially if they don’t have someone to run it Process. This guide may be more difficult to come by this year as high schools and nonprofits have had to move to providing virtual assistance.

19-year-old Hector Rodriguez and a sophomore at Merritt College in Oakland didn’t graduate from FAFSA this year and didn’t file one last year. Rodriguez said the application was difficult and he needed help filling out the form, mostly because his parents are undocumented and cannot help him collect the required documents. Students who are U.S. citizens but who may have undocumented parents are eligible for federal funding.

Hector Rodriguez

“I plan to apply, but I haven’t done it yet because it’s a really confusing process,” he said.

Last year he learned he could get help from the Alameda County Office of Education, but he didn’t follow because he was overwhelmed and confused, Rodriguez said. This meant that he received no financial support for his first year in college and that his parents were forced to help him pay for his tuition.

But this year he really needs the extra help. He lost a job because of the pandemic and has limited time to work more as he helps take care of his nephew. Rodriguez, who wants to be an art teacher, got a new job with FedEx and made $ 21 an hour, but that covers bills and groceries, leaving little to cover tuition.

“I really want to cut the amount of money my parents have to pay for college,” he said. “I don’t want them to worry about my financial support, and I want to prove that I can do things myself and that they don’t always have to take care of me.”

There is also a lot of misinformation this year about the amount of financial assistance available and what the students will need to complete the application.

The commission has received many questions about whether the FAFSA or Cal Grant funding has been used up, and it has not, said Jake Brymner, director of government and external relations for the commission.

“Federal aid acts as a claim,” he said. “You have a need and you are entitled, then this payment will get through.”

Same goes for Cal Grants, he said. Although on-campus financial assistance is more variable and can be difficult to understand, students should contact their university’s financial assistance office.

Another misunderstanding that the Commission is addressing is concerns about the lack of help for distance learning.

“Financial support works the same way, whether it’s distance learning or on campus,” said Brymner. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate.”

Many of the methods used to encourage students to graduate from FAFSA have changed due to the pandemic. For example, the commission offered Cash for College workshops to help students and families complete the FAFSA and Dream Act applications. These workshops have now been transformed into a virtual environment with webinars from grant experts.

The commission is also launching a public service announcement campaign to encourage celebrities and social media influencers to learn about the importance of the FAFSA and meet application deadlines, said Michael Lemus, communications manager for the commission.

When the FAFSA application season began in October, Jessica Ramos said her Oakland High School strongly encouraged students to fill out the form. But in the weeks since then that has stopped. The priority deadline for financial assistance for the California 2021-22 academic year ends March 2nd. However, the universities accept applications all year round.

“The day it came out, my school was putting a lot of pressure on us,” she said. “There were emails after emails and teachers spamming you to make appointments, which was hella dope, and I won’t deny that it was very useful.”

But now that the holidays are approaching, much of that encouragement has “worn off,” she said, referring to the lack of urgency people have when relaxing on the holidays.

Ramos said she found a lot of helpful information on social media.

“There were so many resources on social media telling you how to submit your FAFSA form,” she said.

Ramos, who is applying to multiple facilities at the University of California, California State University, and “about 20 private schools,” including Stanford University, said she needed funding.

“I’ll shoot wide and see if I get any bites,” she said. “I don’t want to take out loans. I plan to go to medical school or teach. I’m looking for a full ride. I don’t want my parents to pay for it. “

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