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Isolation, Impostor Syndrome, Snail Mail: Why Fewer High School Seniors Are Applying For College Financial Aid

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Lynda McGee, the college counselor at Downtown Magnets High School, keeps a list of names under the headline, in a spooky font, "FAFSA Wall of Shame." It's a list of the school's seniors who haven't yet completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the 106-question form that can unlock tens of thousands of dollars in loans, grants and scholarships for college.

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Listen: Why Fewer High School Seniors Are Applying For College Financial Aid

Students must file their FAFSA application by March 2 to get priority for California state aid for the 2021-22 school year. Applications for the California Dream Act for those without legal immigration status are also due March 2.

In what could be described, at least collectively, as the worst year in decades for high schoolers, even L.A.'s most high-achieving public schools, like Downtown Magnets, are having to pull out all the stops to convince coronavirus-weary students they have a bright future -- if they keep up the effort required to get there.

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By the middle of February, just 33% of California high school seniors -- about 159,000 students -- had completed an application and submitted their grade-point average to qualify for a Cal Grant, according to the California Student Aid Commission. That's a 10% decline compared with this time last year.

Nationally, FAFSA applications among high school seniors are also down nearly 10%, according to federal data compiled by the National College Attainment Network.

McGee, who's been honored for her approach to counseling, said a full year of being stuck at home, plus family financial and health concerns, has caused many students to sink into depression "and it has really killed their motivation."

Not only has the pandemic's forced isolation preyed on young people's mental health, it's also made it much more difficult for counselors like McGee to hound and plead with students to stay on top of the numerous, often daunting steps required to get to college. She, like most Southern California public school teachers and counselors, hasn't seen students in person this school year because of concerns about spreading COVID-19.

That means she can't pull kids out of class to help them finish applications; she can't stop them in the hallway to warn of a looming deadline; she can't even "go to their house and talk to them to try to convince them that there's a rainbow on the other side of this," McGee said. "It's hard."

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The overall drop in financial aid applications hides wide disparities among schools -- disparities that largely track with the pandemic's health and economic double-whammy. FAFSA applications are down more than 16% at California schools largely attended by students of color, and down 14.5% at low-income schools. Financial aid applications are down more than 17% at schools in small towns and rural parts of the state, according to the data.

It's Even Worse For The Most Vulnerable Students

Following declines in college enrollment and in the number of freshman applications submitted by low-income and first-generation students, drops in financial aid applications are one more ominous sign of the pandemic's devastating effects on the most vulnerable young people. Having a college degree generally affords much higher lifetime earnings and has proven to be a strong buffer against the current economic recession.

Research also suggests that high school students who delay college are less likely to get a degree and more likely to be juggling work and school at the same time.

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Janicia Centeno-Castillo, assistant director of the federally funded college readiness program GEAR UP 4 LA, is worried about the sluggish submission of financial aid applications this year among the 12th graders she works with:

"This is our kids' future. We know that if they don't secure financial aid, they're less likely to attend [college]. We know that if they don't go to college right now, the chances of them going later decreases. So this is a big one. It's now or never for some of our kids."

A student who doesn't apply for state or federal financial aid and decides to pay for college through private loans could end up with enduring financial woes, said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

"[They] end up often defaulting on loans, often accruing a large amount of debt at very high interest rates, which then impacts their credit, and becomes really a lifetime problem," she said.

Not filling out the FAFSA means a student, especially one with financial need, may miss out on:

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  • A federal Pell Grant, worth up to $6,495 per year for six years;
  • Federal student loans, which can be subsidized by the government and have a fixed interest rate that's often lower than private loans (and much lower than credit card interest rates). Federal loans also offer flexible payment plans and can be forgiven for borrowers who complete a certain number of payments or hold a public service job;
  • Work-study jobs that provide part-time employment for students to help them pay for school;
  • State funding. In California, Cal Grants fully cover tuition and base fees at UC, CSU and many private in-state schools for qualifying low- to middle-income students. Students with dependent children can receive additional funding;
  • Fee waivers and money for books and supplies at community colleges;
  • Private scholarships offered by colleges and private organizations, among other potential sources of funding.

Most students qualify for some form of financial aid. The drop in financial aid applications this year is likely driven by the complicated nature of helping families fill out these applications during the pandemic, as well as financial uncertainty among students, said Dow:

"Especially for our low-income students, they don't know if they're going to need to be working, providing for their families. They don't know if they're going to have enough money to go to college because they aren't fully aware of what financial aid may even cover."

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Lynda McGee, the college counselor at Downtown Magnets High School, holds up her "FAFSA Wall of Shame" after a virtual meeting with peer counselors. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

Downtown Magnets Bucks The Trend — With Unfettered Texting

Downtown Magnets High, which sits right next to the 101/110 interchange, has actually increased the percentage of seniors who have applied for college financial aid this year compared with last -- to around 75% (McGee said her goal is to get to 90%). That's despite the challenges of a closed campus, and the fact that more than 80% of the school's population is considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. Two-thirds identify as Black, Latino, Native American or Pacific Islander, groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

As soon as it was clear this school year would be remote, McGee asked seniors to fill out a survey so she could get their personal emails and cell phone numbers for maximum outreach potential. (Students rarely check their school email account, she said, but "almost every kid has a phone.")

To help with the hounding and pleading, McGee enlisted peer counselors, who each work with 10 to 12 seniors. The peer counselors, who are also seniors, text and email reminders to their assigned students about upcoming events, like virtual college tours, and deadlines -- these days, to submit financial aid applications.

"They can just be like, 'Dude, you know, just stop with the excuses, just do it,'" McGee said. "And they may get a response in a way that I don't because they feel like they have to tell me what I want to hear."

Still, for the peer counselors, it can feel like shouting into the wind. "A lot of them do not answer back," peer counselor Julia Yu, 17, said.

But some students do ask their peer counselors questions, like how to apply for financial aid if you're in the U.S. illegally. Yu and the other peer counselors are a crucial link, passing questions on to McGee and getting answers for their fellow students.

If You Miss The March 2 Deadline, There's Still Aid, But Less Of It

All California high school seniors and recent graduates (class of 2020) are entitled to a Cal Grant if they meet income (low- to middle) and GPA requirements -- and if they apply by the March 2 deadline.

If students wait to apply, and take more than one year off between high school and college, they have to compete for a much more limited pool of state financial aid. In this competitive pool, "we're essentially looking at one award for every several hundred eligible students," Dow said.

Similarly, students who don't meet the March 2 Cal Grant deadline but plan to attend community college in the fall can submit an application for a Cal Grant up to Sept. 2, but there are only 20,500 such awards available each year. (The California Student Aid Commission recently announced a proposal to eliminate the requirement that students be fresh out of high school to be entitled to a Cal Grant, among other proposed changes.)

My Kingdom For A Printer

Applying for financial aid is especially hard for the students who most need it. Students whose parents work odd jobs might not have all the necessary paperwork to document their income. If families lost income during the pandemic, they'll need to complete extra steps for student aid to be correctly calculated. Students in foster care or with strained relationships with their parents may face difficulties collecting the necessary financial information.

Plus, if your parents don't have a social security number, you'll need a printer.

Rather than signing their student's FAFSA electronically, parents without legal immigration status have to print out the FAFSA signature page, sign it, and send it by snail mail. But many households don't own a printer. "And of course they don't have stamps," McGee said.

Here's McGee's pandemic-era workaround to what she calls this "very, very outmoded system": Students give her their FAFSA login so she can print out the signature page and mail it to the student along with a separate, stamped and addressed envelope that the student can mail to the federal government after they get their parent's signature. She said:

"It's crazy, the things we take for granted. The ability to mail a letter, the ability to print from your house -- these are privileges. And the people who make these systems don't think about that."

Cheerleading Through Exhaustion And Heartbreak

The transition to college -- making sure you have the right credits, getting transcripts, figuring out where to apply, writing application essays, applying for financial aid, evaluating admissions packages -- can be like a marathon, or a series of sprints, or a long-distance hurdle race, said Centeno-Castillo from GEAR UP 4 LA. The program helps fill in the gaps in high school counseling that exist at most public schools: California's average student-to-counselor ratio is 663-to-1.

But even GEAR UP can only do so much. The organization is currently helping more than 1,000 L.A. seniors across eight high schools prepare for college. Most of the students would be the first in their family to attend college. Most are Black or Latino, and generally lower income -- in other words, among those hardest hit by the pandemic, least represented on college campuses, and most in need of college financial aid to change all that.

Getting there is "one hurdle after another, after another, after another, and all compounded by the fears and self-doubt around the financial aid process," Centeno-Castillo said.

Some of the families that GEAR UP works with, especially families in the U.S. illegally or with mixed immigration status, are reluctant to divulge the kind of personal data required on financial aid applications. "There is the fear of sharing information that feels so personal and intimate with a stranger: Where does this FAFSA go? Where does this California Dream Act application go?" Centeno-Castillo said.

Compounding that fear, many of the students GEAR UP works with don't feel like they belong in college, she said. Imposter syndrome -- doubting your abilities or feeling you're not deserving of your accomplishments -- is increasingly recognized as common among first-generation college students.

Pushing through that doubt requires a lot of coaxing and cheerleading. "We keep telling them, 'You worked so hard. You deserve this,'" Centeno-Castillo said.

When students are together on campus, peer pressure and peer motivation can be a powerful force, she said:

"Before, the kids' energy would just feed each other. When they submitted [their financial aid application], they were celebrated, and we would ring bells and whatnot. Other kids saw that and they were like, 'I want to be a part of that.' But now it's such an isolated experience."

With California's deadline for financial aid fast approaching, there's not much time for gentle persuasion -- especially when the application process usually takes at least an hour of one-on-one time with a student and their parents or guardians, Centeno-Castillo said. And that's if a family has already gathered all the necessary tax and income documentation and successfully signed up for an official ID on the Federal Student Aid website. And, if they don't run into any snags, which are common, she said.

'Why Do They Need To Jump Through All These Hoops?'

As in so many other areas of society, the pandemic has magnified flaws in the ultra-complicated financial aid system, which generally relies on stable, well-informed parents, or the students themselves -- many of them still children -- to understand and report their family's finances. "The majority of my kids do the FAFSA themselves," McGee said.

Late last year, the federal government made some long-called-for reforms to financial aid, including significantly reducing the number of questions on the form and letting incarcerated students apply. But many proponents of expanding access to college would like to see more done to reform financial aid -- and the whole college application process.

"Why do they need to jump through all these hoops?" asked Steve Desir, a doctoral candidate at USC's Rossier School of Education. Desir noted that in Texas, for example, students fill out a single admissions application for any of the state's public two- and four-year colleges, unlike in California, where UC, CSU and community colleges all have separate applications.

In Illinois and Louisiana, he noted, all high school seniors are required to apply for financial aid, which puts pressure on the school system to make sure all students have access to assistance.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has similarly proposed requiring all 12th graders to apply for financial aid starting next year. But, Desir said, "I think there's critical questions about what they're going to do to support it." The governor's proposed budget includes no funding increase for the California Student Aid Commission's Cash for College program, which runs financial aid workshops throughout the state and is the government's main tool to assist students in filling out their applications.

Newsom is also proposing an increase in the number of Cal Grants available, especially for students who don't attend college right after high school, and for current and former foster youth.

Desir and some others think California authorities should extend the deadline to apply for student aid this year. "In every other sector of human life, people have made concessions and extended deadlines," Desir said.

Others, however, worry that extending the deadline could disrupt students' timeline for making decisions about where to attend college.

Celebrating The Small Wins

Recently McGee celebrated, along with the peer counselors she oversees, the shrinking of the FAFSA shame list: from three columns' worth of names to two columns. "In order to not get all ugly about it, you have to celebrate the small wins," she said.

Centeno-Castillo takes a similar attitude toward the families she works with. "We just keep throwing them the lifeline," she said. "Every single one of those [financial aid] applications that you see [submitted], that's a lifeline that came back and somebody grabbed at the other line. But it took so many hours of wraparound support to get that kiddo there."

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.

Corrected February 26, 2021 at 1:35 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that students must file their FAFSA application by March 2 to be eligible for California state aid as well as federal financial aid for the 2021-22 school year. In fact, students can file their application after that date, but they forfeit priority for state aid. LAist regrets the error.