Fewer high school students are completing an important step in the college financial aid process, raising concerns about another "lost class" of college freshmen in the corona­virus pandemic.

As of early December, the number of high school seniors nationally who had filed a form known as the FAFSA — short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid — was down about 14% from this time last year, according to an online tracking tool that uses data from the federal Education Department.

While that's a bit of an improvement over rates in November, which showed completions down about 17%, it's still far below what it should be, advocates for college access say, and suggests many students aren't on a path to attend college next fall. The FAFSA for the 2021-22 academic year became available Oct. 1.

The drop follows a report earlier this month from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which found that for the class of 2020, enrollment in post-high school education programs was almost 22% lower than for the class of 2019. The decline was about 33% for students from "high poverty" schools.

"It's devastating," said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of low-income and minority students.

She said fears that the pandemic may have spawned a "lost class" of high school seniors this year appear to have been warranted.

The latest FAFSA data suggests the trend may be continuing because completion of the form is a "canary in a coal mine," Cook said. Students who submit the form are far more likely to attend college and finish their degree.

Unlike students from more affluent families, who sometimes take a year off before college to travel or gain experience, students from lower-income families tend to fall off track if they delay enrolling, she said. The demands of working to support themselves or their families often take over and make it difficult for them to catch up. "There is no 'gap year' for our students," Cook said.

Still time to file for aid

There's still time for students to file the form, which serves as the doorway to federal grants and loans as well as financial aid from states and individual colleges. But some states and colleges have earlier deadlines for scholarship funds, and some dole out aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so filing earlier is generally best.

"The earlier you complete it, the more money you tend to be eligible for," said Sally Mayes, chief of staff at the Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit organization that promotes educational equity across the state.

With that in mind, college-access advocates are working with high schools to step up outreach so that students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA.

It may be difficult for students and families to give priority to filling out a complex financial form when they may be struggling to meet basic needs like food and housing amid the pandemic, Cook said.

But students should consider that "it's exactly what could change the game for you and your family," she said.

Many high schools have shifted to virtual learning during the pandemic, and they have also moved traditional FAFSA information events online.

But the FAFSA asks for a lot of detailed information, and while general advice sessions are a start, aid experts say, students often need one-on-one help to complete the form.

Pandemic wrinkle

The pandemic and the shift to virtual learning have added to the challenge of helping students complete the form, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an expert on college access.

The university partners with Say Yes Buffalo, a local nonprofit group, and area schools on a FAFSA completion project, which recruits graduate students as paid interns to work one-on-one with high school students to fill out the FAFSA and related documents.

Before the pandemic, he said, interns met individually with students at local high schools to complete the forms.

Now, students are able to schedule virtual visits with 42 interns but sometimes technology can pose challenges.

There have been cases, for example, in which a student is trying to complete the FAFSA from home on a cellphone, while also talking to the intern on the same phone.

"It's not an optimal way to complete the process," he said.