The pandemic’s economic impact is playing out in Alaska’s schools this year as fewer high school seniors are applying for college financial aid.
Just 11.5% of the state’s 2021 senior class had applied as of Dec. 4 — a rate that is the lowest of any state in the nation.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened for submission in October. Seniors typically apply in the fall and winter months ahead of submitting college applications. FAFSA opens access for students to federal and state grants, state- and college-specific scholarships and federal loans.
Nationwide, FAFSA completions are down by 14% compared to the same time last year, according to a National College Attainment Network analysis of Education Department data. In Alaska, the FAFSA completion rate has fallen by 23.9% compared to last year.
“Being two months into the cycle and seeing the senior class double-digit percentages behind last year is extremely concerning,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the network, a nonprofit.
DeBaun said that the coronavirus pandemic is to blame.
“When public schools started closing across the country, FAFSA completion took a nosedive,” DeBaun said, “and it never really recovered for the Class of 2020.”
The rates are now even worse for 2021′s upcoming class of graduating seniors, he said.
Alaska’s FAFSA completion rates were already low. The state also has one of the lowest four-year high school graduation rates in the nation, although that rate has been rising, as has the national rate.
DeBaun’s analysis does not account for the changing number of high school seniors year-to-year, but that number has actually increased, which means the drop in FAFSA completion rate is more pronounced than what the analysis shows, DeBaun said.
Still, there are some areas of the state where rates have improved, said Bruce Schultz, University of Alaska Anchorage vice chancellor of student affairs . (Beginning in January, Schultz will serve as UAA’s interim chancellor.)
Schultz said he does not necessarily see the drop as an indicator of an imminent dramatic decrease in enrollment at UAA in the fall.
Enrollment in the state’s university system has declined in recent years, although it has improved for some colleges and specific programs. That decline is predicted to reverse soon as larger classes of seniors will graduate in the coming years, Schultz said.
And at UAA, more incoming freshmen have enrolled in the upcoming spring semester than last year, and FAFSA completions at the college are up 5.7% compared to last year, Schultz said.
Schultz said the he thinks high school seniors right now are “just waiting,” preoccupied with overcoming the challenges of online school and the pandemic.
Small towns and rural communities have been disproportionately impacted, where the school is often the only reliable internet access for students to complete a FAFSA, DeBaun said.
“Separating students from not just the broadband connection, but also from the caring adults to help guide the student entering college pathways — those kind of have a compounding effect that that are causing the FAFSA deficit that we’re seeing now,” DeBaun said.
DeBaun’s analysis shows more pronounced shifts in some Alaska communities than others.
High schools in rural Alaska have seen an overall 37.1% drop in FAFSA completions so far. In the Lower Kuskokwim School District, Alaska’s largest rural school district in the number of schools, students and staff, FAFSA completions have dropped from last year by more than 70%, according to DeBaun’s analysis.
The pandemic has exacerbated already-existing barriers to higher education in Alaska, a state with many students who are the first in their families to go to college, Schultz said.
It has also increased disparities between predominantly white high schools and those with “high minority” populations, as well as for Title I schools, which serve a majority of students from low-income families.
In Anchorage, some schools have fallen farther behind than others. Data shows that the district overall is down 14% for FAFSA completions.
At East High School, a racially diverse Title I school, FAFSA completions are down 29.4%. But at South, Eagle River and Service high schools, where students’ families generally have more money, FAFSA completions have risen slightly from last year.
In a typical year, university representatives would be in the high schools talking with students and meeting with families, and high school counselors would be supporting students in person, helping them complete their FAFSAs, Schultz said.
“That’s all shifted now,” Schultz said.
UAA is running virtual outreach and FAFSA completion programs for students, but for many students, priorities have changed.
“We need community partners, we need higher-ed institutions, and we need policymakers at the local, state and federal levels to all work together to think about how they can do outreach to these students and let them know that a post-secondary pathway is still available to them,” DeBaun said.