The number of Minnesotans completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) this year dropped significantly, alarming advocates who are now urging the governor to provide more resources to help students determine their college costs.

"Without urgent intervention, we risk a catastrophic decline in college enrollment, with far-reaching implications for our state's future workforce and economic prosperity," the leaders of eight groups promoting college access wrote in a letter sent to Gov. Tim Walz on Monday.

The FAFSA is a form used to determine how much state, federal and private aid students can receive to help cover their college costs. The U.S. Department of Education attempted to streamline the form and update its formulas this year, but the rollout has been mired in delays and tech glitches. That means many families are still unsure how much they'd have to pay to attend next fall, and some colleges have pushed back their traditional May 1 decision deadlines.

More than 225,000 Minnesotans fill out the FAFSA in a typical year. Many officials closely watch the number of students filling out the form for the first time as a way to get early predictions of next year's freshmen enrollment.

Both advocates and higher education leaders say the number of first-time applicants has dropped between 20% and 30% compared to this same time last year. It's hard to be more specific in part because the U.S. Department of Education tracks that information based on the student's current high school and obscures the data in locations where fewer than five students have completed the form. About 30,000 first-time Minnesota applicants had completed the form as of April 2023.

"I would say that this is an unprecedented situation," said Isaiah Allen, senior director of external relations for College Possible Minnesota. "We're really in a tough, tough spot that has long-term consequences."

Allen noted that many colleges were just starting to rebound from enrollment declines that happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many campuses moved to virtual classes to limit the spread of the virus.

The letter to the governor was signed by leaders of College Possible Minnesota, Achieve Twin Cities, the National College Attainment Network, North Star Prosperity, COPAL MN, Minnesota Voice, LeadMN and the undergraduate student government at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. It asks the governor to use $500,000 of the state's $3.7 billion surplus to boost efforts to help students complete the form and to "convene an emergency response meeting" with state education leaders and college leaders to talk about how they can collaborate.

In an interview, Mike Dean, executive director of North Star Prosperity and former executive director of community college student group LeadMN, said the organizations hope to use the money in two ways: to provide students with one-on-one help troubleshooting their FAFSA problems and doing outreach to encourage students to fill out the form.

The request is coming late in the legislative session, as key budget deadlines loom.

"I think it creates a challenging road, but we are facing what I will predict is going to be an enrollment crisis this fall," Dean said. "We can either invest now to try to minimize that negative impact, or it could be a full-fledged crisis."

The governor's office said Tuesday that it was just hearing about the request for money.

"We welcome input from these organizations and value their partnership," Walz's office said in a statement. "The Minnesota Office of Higher Education already convenes regular meetings on the issue and is working to provide FAFSA support for students."

Keith Hovis, spokesperson for the Office of Higher Education, said leaders there aren't yet taking a position on the funding request, noting that they would need more detail and there would be a "very tight turnaround for how that money would be implemented as well." But, he said, leaders there are "welcoming additional collaboration and working together, as we have with all of these groups."

"There's definitely a need to get the word out to help families to know that they should finish the FAFSA," Hovis said.