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FAFSA completion campaigns get creative in the age of coronavirus

“We are adapting,” said Austin, a counselor with College Advising Corp., which deploys recent college graduates into high schools to guide students. “Students without reliable Internet at home may have trouble completing the form, which is a big motivation for doing a drive-in.”

Getting students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, will be no small feat this year. The pandemic has emptied school hallways where counselors can remind seniors to apply and has rendered unsafe face-to-face fairs advisers host to guide parents through the process.

The federal government, states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine need-based and some merit-based aid. Students, especially those from low-income households, miss out on billions of dollars in federal grants, work-study, subsidized student loans and state scholarships every year by failing to complete the form.

The stakes are high this year. Anemic tax revenue threatens state-sponsored scholarships just as many families find themselves grappling with job losses and furloughs. Applying early for financial aid gives students a better shot at first-come-first-serve state grants. It also means a jump-start on a process that will require a few more steps for families devastated by the recession to access the most aid.

Against that backdrop, college access groups and high school counselors are finding creative ways to reach students and their families. Some are holding FAFSA nights in parking lots with WiFi to let parents remain in their cars while advisers walk them through the application from a distance. Others are hosting virtual sessions through Zoom or beefing up websites with video tutorials and infographics for students.

“People are very concerned about so many other things right now, especially those from underserved communities,” said Shannon Grimsley, outreach program director at Get2College, a division of the nonprofit Woodward Hines Education Foundation in Mississippi. “We want them to know we’re here to get them over the finish line.”

While technology is essential for college advising this year, it can also be a formidable barrier. Poor broadband access in some of the rural parts of Mississippi has made virtual FAFSA workshops tricky as students get kicked off or screens freeze up, Grimsley said. Get2College has posted tutorials on YouTube that students can access from their smartphones and mailed fliers to students encouraging them to call with questions, but the team wanted to do more.

Grimsley said her colleague TJ Walker suggested they replicate the drive-through format health-care workers were using for coronavirus testing. Getting a generator, WiFi hotspots, mobile printers, tents and personal protective equipment will run about $1,000, Grimsley estimates. And her team is still working out the logistics of keeping a distance while looking over applications, but they have a few weeks before the event to figure it out.

Even with the technical hiccups, Grimsley said there are advantages to virtual counseling. In a normal year, her team fans out throughout the state, driving for hours to host hour-long FAFSA events. At least this year, they can hold more workshops and one-on-one appointments in an efficient way.

Austin, of College Advising Corp., has had more success getting families to participate in virtual workshops than the ones she hosted in-person last year. Whereas one or two parents showed up for the face-to-face fair last year, about 20 joined her via Zoom this fall. Turnout was not as strong for the first drive-through fair last week, but others will be held every Thursday and Friday for the rest of the month.

“I’ve had more parents call or text me this year than before,” Austin said. “I don’t know if it is because they are working from home or feel the need to be more involved because students aren’t in school.”

College advisers are working to reverse the flagging FAFSA completion of the previous cycle. About 101,500 fewer high school seniors filed aid applications for the 2020-2021 academic year, according to a National College Attainment Network analysis of FAFSA data through September. The arrival of the pandemic in the spring sidelined advisers as schools pivoted online, raised doubts about the value of remote higher learning and leveled household incomes.

Completion rates had begun slipping in the past two years as a robust economy lured high school graduates into the workforce, said Bill DeBaun, director of data at the National College Attainment Network. He suspects families at the margins also found the high cost of college too prohibitive.

There was an uptick in filings after the Education Department in 2016 let students submit the form in October, instead of January, and provide tax returns from two years earlier. The department has streamlined the financial aid form and Congress has made it easier for the agency and the Internal Revenue Service to share taxpayer data so students can speed through the application.

Still, DeBaun said the form remains daunting for students and families without the “college knowledge” to navigate the process.

Trust is often a hurdle in getting families to complete the FAFSA, said Laura Malmstrom, a counselor at Sarah Pyle Academy, a public school in Wilmington, Del. Some are leery of government agencies, worried that supplying their financial information will jeopardize their jobs, housing or access to social services.

“One-on-one help makes a big difference, walking parents through the process step by step,” Malmstrom said. “It boils down to the relationship we have been building with students and their parents. Parents are much more likely to trust that their information will be safe because they know us.”

Every senior at Sarah Pyle traditionally meets with a counselor to discuss their post-graduation plans, whether that means heading to college, enlisting in the military or entering the workforce. Malmstrom is keeping up the tradition through Zoom and has teamed with other high school counselors to create a college application portal with tutorials as a supplement.

Technology anchors the mission at Sarah Pyle, where teens and young adults who struggled in traditional high schools get another chance to work at their own pace using digital platforms. Still, the remote school year posed challenges. The public school had to distribute portable hotspot devices this fall, aware that many of its 130 students have unreliable Internet access.

The health and economic crisis are exposing inequities and weighing heavy on students and their families. College advisers worry some will be discouraged from pursuing higher education or dissuaded by financial aid packages that are not reflective of a job loss this year. The FAFSA relies on tax data from two years ago.

Financial aid officers can reconsider aid packages when unforeseen events or expenses not captured on the FAFSA affect a family’s ability to pay for college. Professional judgment reviews can decrease students’ expected family contributions or increase their estimated cost of attendance, making them eligible for more grants and loans. But students from low-income households may not see much if any difference in their packages if they are already receiving the maximum award amount for federal grants and loans.

“We’re telling students that the more they stay in touch, the more we can help them navigate any challenges that come up,” said Jennifer Adams, college success director at CollegeTracks, a nonprofit that works with students from low-income families in Montgomery County, Md. “Having a college degree has become no less important in the last seven months.”

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