Heidi Zaragoza felt like driving for much of her junior year.
Stuck at home, logging into her Zoom classes from her room and juggling a job alongside school, Zaragoza said it’s 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 anymore. I didn’t want to apply to colleges or anything,” she said. But when she returned to campus for her senior year, the support of her school counselor and teachers helped her change attitude and she began submitting applications.
“I started to think I really have to do something with my life,” said Zaragoza. “I can’t just sit here and do the same thing because I’m not getting anywhere.”
However, Zaragoza was not alone in her reluctance to apply for college or the financial aid that would help her through it.
Student applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the California DREAM Act have declined significantly in 2022, a trend that has some education leaders concerned about a further decline in enrollment in postsecondary education.
Even more worrisome, the biggest drop in financial aid applications has been among seniors from low-income families — meaning fewer of the students who need financial aid the most are on track to receive it for 2022.
“What this really shows is an equity issue,” said Leonardo Rodriguez, a Mendocino College student who has served as a representative for his peers on the California Student Aid Commission since November. “And it may lead to many more inequalities in the future.”
Completion of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees come with greater earning potential throughout an individual’s life, with some limitations due to the ever-increasing cost of this education. Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, in particular, are at greater risk of carrying heavy debt burdens.
For that reason, officials say, it’s crucial that students don’t leave money on the table that they’re entitled to.
However, students still have months to apply. However, with some grants, timing is critical, as some grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
The sooner you know what college options you can afford, the better you can plan, Rodriguez said.
Schools and community partners are looking for ways to encourage graduate seniors to keep their options open by keeping money on the table.
“We’ve been going in the right direction for so long, and now COVID has kind of taken that down,” said Traci Lanier, vice president of foreign affairs at the Bay Area nonprofit 10,000 Degrees. “We need to restart with this message of why financial aid matters and why post-secondary education matters.”
University in times of COVID
According to the California Student Aid Commission, as of February 1, FAFSA and DREAM Act applications lagged the most from students who reported personal or family incomes of between $1 and $40,000.
The number — 415,973 applications — is down nearly 25% from 2021.
And across all income levels, applications are down 16% year over year.
Those cuts have proponents like Lanier “very, very worried.”
School officials and others who work with students have several theories as to what is driving the decline in financial aid applications.
One factor is the uncertainty that seniors in the current and last two graduating classes face regarding the pandemic and the future.
“There’s been so much change and uncertainty and applying for college and financial aid — it’s like a commitment to the future,” Lanier said. “How are you planning for next fall when all your plans for the past few weeks have been cancelled?”
That uncertainty is compounded amid the economic pressures of the pandemic, even as hopes of federal intervention on student debt and tuition costs have not materialized.
First Lady Jill Biden conceded in a Feb. 7 speech to community college leaders that a free community college will not make it into a welfare spending package Congress has been fighting to pass for months. President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to ensure student debt relief has also stalled.
All of these factors, Rodriguez believes, make his peers even more cautious about taking out student loans.
“I think what every student goes through is a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “And really, if students don’t even know how much financial aid there is out there, they can’t make the right decisions.”
A lack of understanding of available financial aid can most often prevent first-generation college students and students from non-English speaking households from applying. They face other barriers to accessing resources that can guide them through the process or explain why an application is important.