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Federal Student-Aid Applications Down in 2020, Signaling Potential Drop in College Enrollment

A man walks through an empty campus green at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., April 3, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The number of high school seniors applying for federal student financial aid for college has dropped significantly since the previous year, signaling that college attendance may remain low during the 2021–2022 school year.

Schools and students have struggled to adapt classes during the coronavirus pandemic, with many institutions implementing hybrid remote and in-person learning. This combination has been more difficult to implement in rural areas, where college and high-school students are less likely to have Internet access.

The first two months of the cycle for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) saw a 17 percent decrease in applications compared with the same period last year, according to Education Department data analyzed by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. High schools with high minority populations have submitted 22 percent fewer FAFSA forms when compared with last year, and high schools with a high number of low-income students have submitted 20 percent fewer applications.

“To still see double-digit percent decreases from last year is alarming to me,” NCAN data director Bill DeBaun told the Journal.

Overall, 24.3 percent of U.S. high school seniors completed the FAFSA by November 27, while 29.3 percent submitted the application in 2019 by the same date.

Around seven million students had already canceled plans to attend college by August 2020, according to U.S. Census data. The pandemic and ensuing business closures have exacerbated economic challenges for students from low-income families, causing many to defer their studies.

“For our low-income students, they are obviously struggling with their education and helping out with their families,” Jacqueline Moreno, an executive staff member at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not entirely different from what low-income students face when they are first-generation college students in any year — it’s just exacerbated right now, and people are paying more attention.

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Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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