Alarm clock

by Shannon Vasconcelos, former financial aid officer at Tufts University

The COVID pandemic has upended the world of college admissions in all sorts of ways. You may have read recently about the tremendous upsurge in applications at some of the most selective schools in the country, but those positive numbers only tell a limited part of the “admissions in the age of COVID” story.

Unsettling news has just come out of the state of California regarding financial aid applications for first-time college applicants. According to EdSource, FAFSA applications are down 11% among California high school seniors compared to last year, and California Dream Act applications (an alternative form to the FAFSA for undocumented students) are down a whopping 45%. This data tracks with national trends, where FAFSA completion is down 10% overall for high school seniors, and lowest among students attending low-income high schools (down 12%) and high schools with high minority enrollment (down 15%).

These discouraging numbers are likely the result of COVID’s upheaval of home, school, and community life. Students may have less available counselor support in a remote school environment and less assistance from community organizations that hold financial aid workshops and other helpful events in a more typical year. There is also likely to be less focus on college-going in the home when families are in economic distress.

While business seems to be booming at many brand-name schools, financial aid application completion tends to act as a canary in the coal mine for overall college enrollment, according to Patrick Perry of the California Student Aid Commission. These low numbers, therefore, don’t bode well for enrollment for the 2021/22 school year, particularly among first-generation and low income students, for whom Common App completion is also down.

If you hope to enroll in college for the upcoming school year, but have not yet completed a financial aid application, you need to act fast. Deadlines are quickly approaching or may have already passed. Some forms of federal aid, like Pell Grants and Direct Student Loans, are entitlement programs that can be accessed very late in the process, and some colleges will continue to award institutional aid until they run out of money, so, even if you’ve missed a financial aid application deadline, don’t give up hope or give up on your college dreams. Instead, follow these steps immediately:

  1. Check the website of each college on your list for financial aid application requirements and deadlines.
  2. Complete the FAFSA and/or any other indicated applications (such as the CSS Profile or state aid application, if required).
  3. Review applications for accuracy and submit corrections if needed.
  4. Check your email, and each college’s applicant portal, for any requested or missing documents, and submit immediately.
  5. If application requirements are unclear, contact the Financial Aid Office ASAP to seek clarification.
  6. If your application was completed late, email the Financial Aid Office, apologizing for the mistake, explaining any extenuating circumstances, and notifying them that all materials have now been submitted.
  7. Also share by email, with documentation, any special financial circumstances that you would like considered with your aid application.

Once you’ve taken care of the above, the Financial Aid Office takes over in terms of reviewing your application and awarding you a financial aid package. If your financial aid offer does end up being negatively impacted by a late application, feel free to reach out to the Financial Aid Office. Find out what you can anticipate for future years, or if there are any action steps that you can take now to improve your award package for this year or the future.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University. Visit our website to learn more about Shannon Vasconcelos.