Published in Talent

Community college enrollment maintains as pandemic causes broader drop in financial aid applications

BY Sunday, August 29, 2021 05:10pm

Michigan’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion and submission rates decreased for the second year in a row by nearly 5 percent, indicating lower college enrollment and ongoing challenges for the already sparse talent pipeline. 

As of July 30, the state FAFSA completion rate was at 52.3 percent, compared to 57 percent at the same time in 2020. This is on par with the nationwide completion rate that’s down 4.5 percent from last year. 

Completion of the financial aid form is the biggest indicator of post-secondary enrollment and completion, said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director at Michigan College Access Network

The recent declining rates have been largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are particularly lower among low-income and disadvantaged communities.

According to data from the Congressional Research Service, April 2020 unemployment in the U.S. was at 21.2 percent for workers with no high school degree, compared to 8.4 percent for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Fewer people applying for financial aid is a likely indicator that fewer low-income students and students of color will be attending college this year compared to previous years, Fewins-Bliss said.

This could lead to “major implications” for the future workforce if fewer racially diverse and talented low-income students aren’t going to college, Fewins-Bliss said.

Enrollment data from last year show a sizable dip as well, with the total headcount across Michigan’s 15 state universities dropping 3.4 percent in fall 2020 from the year before. 

Pandemic obstacles

The pandemic has undoubtedly made the process of applying for financial aid even more complicated, especially for low-income students, first-generation college students and students of color.

A lack of access to technology and other resources, which was exacerbated during the pandemic, is a major barrier to applying for financial aid through FAFSA, said Shayla Young, the director of T2C Studio: Grand Rapids Center for College Success. The organization is a public-private partnership between city of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools that focuses on aiding first-generation students and students of color to complete postsecondary education.

T2C Studio went virtual when the pandemic hit and has continued to operate remotely. Before the pandemic, T2C Studio averaged five to six appointments with students a day. That dropped to about five appointments per week when its services went virtual, Young said.

“Completion of FAFSA is a big access thing,” Young said. “The form can be quite intimidating if you don’t have someone doing it alongside you.”

College overall has become increasingly expensive and inaccessible for low-income students. Other financial aid opportunities exist, including the Pell Grant for community college, yet it can be difficult to raise awareness among students, Young said.

The pandemic has also disproportionately affected low-income households and people of color, making students from those backgrounds more likely to hold off on going to college amid uncertainty over COVID-19 mandates at schools. Young said this was a top concern raised among students during a virtual event that T2CStudios recently held.

“One student said if there was one thing she could tell colleges about how COVID-19 was affecting her, she said universities need to essentially get woke and understand this is affecting our communities way differently than others,” Young said.

Community college enrollment maintains

Despite the statewide and national decline in FAFSA applications, community college leaders are hopeful that their students can help fill the gap that larger colleges are seeing in their enrollment numbers. 

Some community colleges in Michigan aren’t seeing enrollment declines, thanks in part to statewide programs like Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect.

Michigan Reconnect offers eligible students a free education for an associate degree at a community college or skills certificate, and it also includes scholarships to help cover costs at more than 70 private training schools. Futures for Frontliners covers tuition for workers deemed essential during COVID-19 shutdown orders.

At Kalamazoo Valley Community College, these programs have “shifted the student body significantly,” said Alisha Cederberg, associate dean of student experience at KVCC. Enrollment was down last year but has at least held steady this year, Cederberg said. Last year, FAFSA applications plummeted but are up this year because of the Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect programs, she added.

Grand Rapids Community College provides tuition-free education through Michigan Reconnect, Futures for Frontliners and the Grand Rapids Promise Zone. GRCC had a large increase in FAFSA completion rates, which is up 26.8 percent over this time last year. 

“Filling out the FAFSA is key to taking advantage of these opportunities,” said GRCC Communications Director Dave Murray. “We had a ‘Don’t Fear the FAFSA’ campaign earlier this year, directing students to a special GRCC financial aid hotline we created to help people with questions about the application. We don’t want anyone to miss out on a life-changing education because they struggle with the application.”

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