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As Deadline Looms, Applications For College Financial Aid Are Lagging

An adult and a female high school student lean in to look at a laptop.
Gardena High School college counselor Bo Mee Kim helps a student complete her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) ahead of the March 2 deadline to be eligible for a four-year Cal Grant.
(Jill Replogle
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It's "hell week" for college advisors at high schools all across California: the final days for seniors to apply for state financial aid to help pay for a four-year university next fall.

As Deadline Looms, Applications For College Financial Aid Are Lagging

At Gardena High School a counselor delivers neon green flyers warning that students could miss senior trips and graduation if they don't apply. The counselor at Downey High School dangles "carrots," like free yearbooks, to students who make the March 2 deadline. (Students planning to attend community college next fall have until September to apply for financial aid.)
It's "madness," said Victoria Montes, college advisor at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School.

Financial aid applications were down 12% statewide as of Feb. 23 compared to the same time last year — despite hopes that a return to in-person learning would prompt more students to complete this crucial step toward higher education.

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Financial aid applications were down 13.6% in Los Angeles County, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission. L.A.-area counselors and college advisors say they’re having an unusually hard time keeping students on track.

"We all thought, 'hey, we're gonna go back to in-person and that's gonna solve all of our problems,'" said Yicel Paez, who directs the L.A. branch of the state-funded California Student Opportunity and Access Program (Cal-SOAP). The drop in financial aid applications last year compared to pre-pandemic times was largely blamed on family hardships, Zoom fatigue and the difficulties counselors faced hounding students remotely about deadlines.

In-Person Schooling Has Rebounded, So Why Haven’t Financial Aid Apps?

Even though most students are back on campus and the pandemic appears to be waning, counselors are struggling to understand exactly why college plans have yet to rebound.

"We don't know, we are really trying to figure that out," Montes from Bravo said. "I mean, these kids qualify for full Cal Grants, which means they qualify for free tuition at the UCs and Cal States because they've done the work academically, but getting them to finish has just been a little challenging."

She and other counselors in the L.A. area worry that the pandemic knocked many vulnerable students off the college-going path. Gardena High School counselor Bo Mee Kim said some students have been inexplicably absent for long periods of time.

"It's one thing if you had COVID once in the school year, but some students, they've been gone for almost a month," Kim said. "So we're trying to figure out how to get them back engaged in school."

Paez said many students are attracted by the current plethora of job openings. "What we're hearing constantly is, 'yeah, I'm just gonna go work. I don't need to go to college. I don't need to stress over this," she said.

More than 1 million fewer students were studying at community colleges and universities this past fall compared to pre-pandemic 2019, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. At the same time, people without a college degree were the most affected by job losses when the pandemic hit. They also generally earn much lower wages than those with a bachelor's degree and, to a lesser extent, than those with an associate degree.

Paez also pointed out that this year's seniors hadn't been on campus since they were sophomores, and many of them therefore missed having the idea of going to college — and the complicated process of getting there — drilled into their brains.

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"I feel like we're in this reactionary period," she said, "like, whatever you do, just do it, just sit here and complete these applications."

Starting next year, applying for college financial aid will be mandatory for all California high school seniors, unless they request a waiver. L.A. Unified School District's new superintendent has until late April to present a plan for how to comply with the new state rule.

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

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