Local advocates urge students to apply for college financial aid
Heidi Zaragoza felt like she was adrift during much of her junior year.
Stuck at home, logging onto her Zoom classes from her room and juggling a job in addition to school, Zaragoza said it was hard to think about future goals — like college, and how to pay for it.
“At some point, I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to apply to colleges or anything,” she said. But when she returned to campus for her senior year, support from her school counselor and her teachers helped her change her mindset, and she began submitting applications.
“I started thinking, I really got to do something with my life,” Zaragoza said. “I can’t just keep sitting around here doing the same thing because I’m going to get nowhere.”
Zaragoza wasn’t alone, though, in her hesitancy to apply for college or the financial aid that will help her to attend.
Student applications to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the California DREAM Act are down significantly in 2022, a trend that has some education leaders worried about a further decrease in enrollment in postsecondary education.
Even more concerning, the largest drop in financial aid applications is among seniors from lower-income families — meaning fewer of the students who need financial aid the most are on track to receive it for 2022.
“What this is showing really is an equity problem,” said Leonardo Rodriguez, a Mendocino College student who since November has served as a representative for his peers on the California Student Aid Commission. “And it can lead to a lot more inequalities in the future.”
Completion of associate and bachelor’s degrees is associated with higher earning potential throughout a person’s lifetime, with some caveats, due to the ever-increasing cost of that education. In particular, students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds take on greater risks of shouldering heavy debt burdens.
This is why, officials say, it’s critical that students don’t leave money they are eligible for on the table.
To be sure, students still have months left to submit applications. But for some scholarships, timing matters, as aid is distributed partially on a first-come, first served basis.
Additionally, the earlier you know what college options you can afford, the better you can plan, Rodriguez said.
Schools and community partners are brainstorming ways to encourage graduating seniors to keep their options open by not leaving money on the table.
“We were going in the right direction for so long, and now COVID has kind of dismantled that,” said Traci Lanier, vice president of external affairs at Bay Area nonprofit 10,000 Degrees. “We have to kind of restart with that message about why financial aid is important and why postsecondary education is important.”
College in the time of COVID
As of Feb. 1, FAFSA and DREAM Act applications from students reporting a dollar to $40,000 in personal or family income were lagging the most, according to the California Student Aid Commission.
The number — 415,973 applications — is down nearly 25% from 2021.
And across all income levels, applications are down 16% from last year.
Those decreases have advocates including Lanier “very, very concerned.”
School officials and others who work with students have several theories about what is driving the downturn in financial aid applications.
One factor is the level of uncertainty seniors from the current and past two graduating classes have faced when it comes to the pandemic and the future.
“There’s been so much change and uncertainty, and applying for college and financial aid — it’s like a stake in the future,” Lanier said. “How do you plan for next fall when all your plans in the last few weeks have been canceled?”
That uncertainty is heightened amid the economic pressures of the pandemic, even as hopes of federal intervention on student debt and college costs have failed to materialize.
First Lady Jill Biden, in a Feb. 7 speech to community college leaders, acknowledged that free community college will not make it into a social spending package Congress has struggled to pass for months. President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to ensure student debt forgiveness have also stalled.
All of those factors, Rodriguez believes, make his peers even more wary of taking on student loan debt.
“I think what every students is going through is a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “And really, if students don’t even know how much financial aid is out there, they aren't able to make the decisions that are appropriate.”
Lack of understanding about available financial aid can most commonly hamper first-generation college students and those from non-English speaking households from applying. They face more obstacles to access resources that can guide them through the process, or clarify why applying matters.