Fewer Minnesota high school seniors are filing for federal financial aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, a sign that students in this next class of graduates could have their college plans derailed.

As of New Year's Day, the number of Minnesota high school seniors who had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, was down 10% from the same time last year, according to an online tracker of U.S. Education Department data. The FAFSA determines eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funding.

"There's no way to look at this as a positive right now," said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network, which compiles the FAFSA data. "That figure represents a large portion of this class that could end up not pursuing a postsecondary pathway or delaying one to their detriment."

This important step in the college admissions process is simply not front of mind for students who are struggling with distance learning and disruptions to their personal lives, say school counselors, who are spread thin and scrambling to help students catch up. The decline could spell trouble for colleges that hoped their enrollment would rebound this fall and comes amid a push to make FAFSA completion a Minnesota graduation requirement.

In normal years, students could drop into their counselor's office and ask questions as they fill out the tedious financial aid application. High schools also held "FAFSA nights" where staff helped many students complete the application at once. This year, the outreach is by telephone and online.

Jessica Lipa, career and technical education director for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said counselors have done "as much reaching out to families as possible." The district is even organizing virtual question-and-answer sessions with college admissions representatives each week.

Samina Ali, a counselor at Johnson High School in St. Paul Public Schools, said her school went forward with its annual scholarship and financial aid assistance nights, holding both virtually. Several dozen students and their families tuned into each event and recordings were posted online for others to watch later.

Despite such efforts, FAFSA completions by seniors are down 24% in the St. Paul School District and 11% in Anoka-Hennepin.

"Families are inundated virtually," Lipa said. "That personalized connection is a little harder to make with them."

Some students have fallen further behind than others. At Minnesota high schools with high minority populations, FAFSA completions are down a staggering 21%, compared with a roughly 7% drop at schools that serve fewer students of color.

Students who will be the first in their family to attend college often need more help filling out financial aid forms, as do those from low-income households and those whose parents are not native English speakers. But supporting these students from a distance has proved difficult.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, with 65% students of color, FAFSA completions are down 17%. Jim Bierma, the district's executive director of college and career readiness, said some seniors have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others are working jobs to help support their families. Counselors are focused most on making sure these students graduate and have their mental health needs addressed.

"They're dealing with trauma," Bierma said. "They're just trying to concentrate on getting the essentials."

Additionally, many high school seniors do not like distance learning, educators say. That also might explain why fewer are completing the FAFSA. Most college courses are being taught remotely during the pandemic, and it remains unclear if students will return to campus classrooms this fall.

"That'd be so hard to want to go to postsecondary when a lot of [students] are like, 'Wow, it's going to be harder there,' " said Derek Francis, Minneapolis Public Schools' manager of counseling services.

FAFSA requirement?

The decline in seniors filing for aid is raising alarms among higher education advocates, who worry that college enrollment might plummet again this fall.

College freshman enrollment declined 13% nationally last fall amid the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The organization also reported that 22% fewer graduates went to college immediately after high school in 2020 than in 2019.

"It continues to be a concern for colleges who are looking at their enrollment numbers," said Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson. "If we're just looking at an economic recovery strategy for the state and really for the nation overall, increased college enrollment has to be one of the factors that needs to be at play there."

To stave off future enrollment loss, some say the state should make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement. Only a handful of states, including Louisiana and Texas, have done this.

Mike Dean, executive director of the statewide community college student association LeadMN, said many students never complete the FAFSA because they do not think they will qualify for aid. About 53% of Minnesota high school seniors completed the financial aid form in the previous academic cycle, ranking 41st nationally, according to the National College Attainment Network.

LeadMN is asking state lawmakers to make the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement starting in the 2023-24 school year.

That would coincide with changes at the federal level; the COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress in December reduced the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 36.

"We're just not keeping pace with where we need to be," Dean said. "Without dramatic change, we're going to start falling behind."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth