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The number of high school seniors who have filled out FAFSA is down from last year

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Could fewer high school seniors end up in college next fall because of a form?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Apparently - the federal student aid form for college, known as the FAFSA. The Department of Education launched a new process to apply for financial aid this year, which should be simpler, except for all the delays and errors.

MARTIN: NPR higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny is here to bring us up to date on how it's going. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So I take it it's going badly.

NADWORNY: Yes. It has been a very bumpy road for this new FAFSA. So the form didn't come out until about three months after it usually comes out. So essentially the starting line got pushed way back. And then there were the Education Department's miscalculations and missteps. Some students in mixed immigration status families are still having trouble filling out the online form, and it is April. The Education Department says they are working hard and fast to get this fixed and get that data out to colleges.

MARTIN: I understand in the meantime, though, that FAFSA submissions are down. How far down?

NADWORNY: Twenty-seven percent, Michel. That's for high school seniors. And that comes out to about half a million fewer students than the class of 2023. That's all according to the National College Attainment Network, which is using Department of Education data.

MARTIN: And what are the high schools - you know, there are also nonprofits that help students apply for college. What are they saying about all this?

NADWORNY: Well, they're in emergency mode. They are sounding the alarm. Here's Bill DeBaun with the National College Attainment Network.

BILL DEBAUN: In some parts of the country, we're less than 10 weeks from high school graduation. It's not that students can't complete the FAFSA after high school graduation. It's just that in general, they have less support to do so.

NADWORNY: So I've talked with some families who are planning on filling out the FAFSA. They were just kind of waiting until the chaos was over. And there have been steady gains over the last couple of weeks as more and more high school seniors fill it out. But we are, you know, a long way away from getting back up to the levels of the class of 2023.

MARTIN: Well, say more about what the experts think the implications are for all this. I mean, does this have implications for where people go to college or even if they go to college?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. I mean, that - high FAFSA completion numbers have historically meant higher college enrollment numbers come fall. The data shows that high schools with more resources have higher completion numbers. So it is an early indicator that college going rates might be in trouble, especially for students from more poorly funded schools.

MARTIN: And I understand that college enrollment has been declining, too.

NADWORNY: Exactly. Yes. So the pandemic saw about a million fewer students choose college. Now, last fall, the data showed the beginning of a recovery, but now this.

MARTIN: Is there still time to fill the FAFSA out?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. And high schools and college access nonprofits, even colleges, are trying to do whatever they can to get students to fill it out. I've seen pizza parties. You know, they're throwing these big community events after school, on weekends, offering students one-on-one help. Rocio Zamora runs a college access program at a high school in San Diego, and her staff has been putting on weekend FAFSA events.

ROCIO ZAMORA: The support is there, and the messages to complete it are there, but it's more of the fact that the application wasn't ready for them and that leading to frustrations and disappointment and discouragement and just really questioning their plans.

NADWORNY: And the thing is, low-income students need that financial aid offer to make a decision about if they can afford college. I've talked with students who have been accepted to college already, but it's not real until they get that financial aid document, which in many cases hasn't happened yet. And without the full financial picture, students may make preemptive decisions about where to go - to stay closer to home, to go to a less expensive community college, or to say, maybe I'm not going to go to college at all.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, thank you.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is co-host of Morning Edition, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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