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'It's Not Too Late' Fewer NC Students Completed The FAFSA This Year

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Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash
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The number of high school seniors who have filled out the FAFSA dropped by about 9 percent during the pandemic. College advisers want students to know it's not too late to apply for financial aid.

The free application for federal student aid - better known as the FAFSA - is a gateway to all kinds of financial aid for college. But the number of high school seniors submitting the form fell this year.

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Courtesy of Zadaiah Roye
Zadaiah Roye is a junior at Duke University and a first-generation college student who's been helping her younger sister tackle college forms like the FAFSA.

Zadaiah Roye remembers filling out financial aid applications when she was in high school. As the first person in her family to go to college, she says even the paperwork felt like a lot of pressure.

"Just that general fear of like, 'Am I doing this right?'" Roye said.

Now as a junior at Duke University, she's been helping her younger sister Alasia fill out the FAFSA and other college forms.

"I'm having to Google stuff all the time, because I'm unsure of like, what this form is, or does she need to do this?" Roye said.

When Roye was a senior at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory charter school, the school held a FAFSA night to get students started on the application.

But this year, her sister's school - and most high schools - canceled their annual FAFSA events due to the pandemic.

Data show fewer high school students are submitting this valuable form this school year. As of mid-March, FAFSA applications were down 9% on average in North Carolina compared to the same time last year.

High schools in rural areas or with large numbers of low-income students saw more significant declines. For instance, Title I schools — a federal designation for schools where at least 40% of the student population is low-income — saw a drop of about 12% in FAFSA completions, compared with a decline of about 6% for non-Title I schools.

The data on FAFSA completions come from the Federal Student Aid office, and were sorted by the Associated Press. North Carolina's disparity between Title I and other schools was narrower than the national average. Nationally, FAFSA applications from Title I schools were down 13.9% compared to 5.6% for non-Title I schools.

Roye is connected to a lot of first generation students on Twitter, and she says they feel like they've been left hanging.

"A lot of the memes are about how people are just hoping that the IRS doesn't come get us, because we're doing this wrong!" Roye said. "Because there really is no way to know how to do this stuff unless you have someone who knows how to do it."

The College Foundation of North Carolina is a state-sponsored agency that provides free information about applying to and paying for college.

"We're finding that some students aren't applying or haven't applied as early as they have in the past, because they're kind of in limbo" said Sarita Broadway, a regional representative for the foundation serving the Triangle.

Broadway says some students may be debating whether to attend a four-year college or a community college, or may be dealing with changes in their families' financial situation because of the pandemic.

She says some students don't realize the FAFSA is a key step to access not only federal aid, but also state grants and scholarships from universities.

"In order for families to be considered for any type of financial aid, that application needs to be on file," Broadway said.

CFNC is helping students who haven't submitted the FAFSA yet to catch up.

"Some students just feel like it's too late, but it's not too late."
Sarita Broadway

The College Foundation is holding drive-in events in April with free Wi-Fi to help students complete the forms on their phone or laptop. The organization also has resources that allow students to see which colleges are still accepting applications for admission and for guidance counselors to see which students at their school have finished their FAFSA form.

Perquimans High School Principal Mickey Drew says he's watching the financial aid list. Last year, about 50 seniors at the school in northeastern North Carolina had filled out the FAFSA by now. This year, only about 30 have.

Drew says he thinks the biggest obstacle is that students haven't spent as many school days in the building this year due to COVID.

"The kids aren't here to get your hands on them so to speak," Drew said. "It's very difficult when they're remote to get them to respond to an email or to a phone call when you can't follow up in person."

The school canceled its two big FAFSA events this year, an assembly with seniors and an open house for parents. Most students are back in the building now, but some seniors opted to finish their high school education virtually.

"We have a lot of students who have gone on and found employment last March, when we were dismissed from school. They found full time jobs, and they like the job they have," Drew said.

While some Perquimans High students opted for local jobs in agriculture or with the Coast Guard, others are pursuing higher education, but delaying plans to go to a 4-year college in favor of community college.

"They don't see the need for FAFSA for community college because in their minds that's cheaper," Drew said. "We've tried to express that, you know, FAFSA can help at the community college level as well."

Zadaiah Roye has this advice for seniors hesitant to complete the FAFSA:

"Don't feel like just because it's difficult, or it's confusing that you don't need to do it, because any aid is aid."

She says financial aid got her where she is today, prepared to graduate with a four-year degree and no debt.

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