Q&A: Why a Minnesota HS Counselor Is Sounding the Alarm on Declining College Applications, Pandemic-Fueled FAFSA Roadblocks and Teens’ Waning Interest in ‘Zoom’ Universities

BG Tucker

This conversation is the latest in our ongoing series of in-depth 74 Interviews (scan our full archive). Other notable recent interviews: Former Sen. Lamar Alexander talks about finally fixing the college financial aid form, researcher Angela Duckworth talks parenting, psychology and grit, and Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee reviews a community-based afterschool program that can help combat learning loss. 

Halfway through a school year like no other, BG Tucker is ringing an alarm bell. She’s contacted her elected officials, college admissions counselors and journalists — and even messaged Michelle Obama on Instagram — to tell them: High schoolers’ path to college is more difficult than ever.

Tucker, a guidance counselor at Venture Academy, a Minneapolis charter school serving mostly low-income students from grades 6 to 12, is particularly worried about her seniors whose parents are undocmented immigrants — a sizable section of the class — because of a roadblock that’s making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) extra difficult for them this year. The financial aid form requires a wet parent signature, which usually is no problem because students and parents meet in person for “FAFSA nights” to get all their paperwork in order. This year, parents can sign the form electronically — if they have a social security number, which is required for a valid virtual signature in the federal financial aid system.

Undocumented parents, who don’t have social security numbers, have to print the page, sign it and mail it in — another significant barrier, Tucker says, on top of countless others that could prevent her students from receiving financial aid packages from colleges and ultimately pursuing higher education.

The former first lady never replied, but Tucker is doing what she can to help her students access higher education this year. She has sent self-addressed stamped envelopes with the forms to those who need the signature page, but many were lost in the mail or haven’t been returned to her, she said.

In some cases, she’s called individual colleges to explain the situation and ask admissions officers to consider students’ financial aid forms even though they’re technically “incomplete.” She’s visited students at home so parents can sign the paper and give it back to her right away. Still, about a dozen students who need the wet signature page haven’t submitted it yet.

Even more concerning: Beyond bureaucratic issues like the signature page, Tucker says many students are less invested in the application process this year because they’re too busy working full time to support their families during the economic downturn or they’re hearing from friends that college on Zoom is a drag.

The lack of face-to-face contact — with both high school educators and college officials — is also a factor. Before COVID-19, in-person interaction was central to the process of applying for college and financial aid, said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Now, most Venture students and many of their peers across the country are learning completely online, just as national surveys show that one in four high school students report changing their post-graduation plans due to the pandemic.

“We’ve had to fundamentally rethink everything that we do along that continuum,” Hawkins said. The lagging FAFSA data has Hawkins and others who work in college counseling “really concerned” that the pandemic could erode the progress that’s been made in college access in recent years, he added.

While the Venture high school, which has been remote this school year, is now offering in-person support for the students who most need it — English learners and those receiving special education services — the broader plan to transition all students to a hybrid schedule may be months away. Among Tucker’s Venture Academy seniors, about half have currently completed either the FAFSA or an application through the Minnesota Dream Act, which gives financial aid to undocumented students in the state.

That’s 20 percentage points lower than the roughly 70 percent who Tucker estimates had completed the applications at this time last year.

The Venture numbers mirror the national trends. In mid-February, financial aid applications nationwide were down about 9 percent from the same time last year, according to a FAFSA completion tracker maintained by the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit working to close equity gaps in higher education. Those missing forms will likely result in missing students come fall; completing the FAFSA is positively correlated to enrolling in higher education, according to data from NCAN.

We spoke with Tucker about her ongoing efforts to keep students on track for higher education, the extraordinary logistical, physical and mental hurdles facing this year’s senior class, and her broader concerns that even if her students do reach college in the fall, they may arrive to campuses that are ill equipped to help them through the unique challenges of COVID.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

The 74: What are some of the challenges that your seniors are experiencing in the financial aid and college application process that you don’t normally see when there’s not a pandemic?

Tucker: The biggest thing that I’m noticing right now is there are the nitty-gritty logistical components that are very challenging, and there’s also an overarching lack of knowledge, understanding and buy-in. With this cohort of kids, when we would normally have done our big junior push for getting parents in the building and started to prep parents for the FAFSA and college applications and life after high school, all our events got canceled because they were literally scheduled for the time when we first went to distance learning in spring 2020.

It was absolute madness trying to make sure we didn’t lose any kids in that process, so that push about college definitely got pushed to the back burner.

This senior class’s understanding of things like what the FAFSA is and why it’s super important and the components that go into it is just very, very minimal. And so on the front end, it’s hard to get buy-in to actually go through the process of doing the FAFSA. Then as we’re doing it, and more and more roadblocks are popping up, it’s hard to maintain that energy to keep it going.

And after it’s submitted, there’s still a ton of follow up to do. It feels like I’m working with a class of kids who are still juniors — even though they’re seniors — in terms of their understanding of the college application process.

Let’s talk about the FAFSA signature page. That seems like something that, for a segment of students, could be the thing that derails this whole process. Did the stakes feel that high to you?

I had two students apply early decision to two very competitive colleges. And we actually called the school and said, “Hey, you can see their FAFSA. You can see the information on it. It is marked as incomplete, but please use that information. The reason it’s incomplete is we can’t get a signature page to Federal Student Aid. And we’re working on it. But please, if you’re going to accept the student or if you’re looking at their aid and their finances, please use the information you have. And don’t be like, ‘Oh, we can’t read this because we don’t have a complete FAFSA.’”

Once I started explaining the situation, they said, “Oh my God, that makes so much sense. Of course they don’t have a printer at home. Of course you can’t go to FedEx and print right now, or you don’t feel comfortable doing that. Of course you can’t use the school printer.”

But I have a caseload of 50 students. For a counselor who has a caseload of 600 students or something like that, that’s probably not happening. And for schools that are less lenient about those types of things, like big public state institutions, or even smaller state institutions, either you can’t get someone on the phone because they’re so overwhelmed right now, or they can’t be that flexible.

In combination with other things, it does feel like we could have applications submitted, but never get a financial aid package. And then the kid’s not going to go to that school.

What are you doing to help with other roadblocks that students are running into because of the pandemic?

We’ve had to do a lot of triaging, which is pretty uncomfortable to do because you don’t want to lose kids in the application process. You don’t want to be the reason why kids are missing a deadline.

Let’s say students really want to apply to University of Minnesota Duluth, and the University of Minnesota Duluth’s deadline is Jan. 15. But they haven’t done any of the work for it. They don’t have a personal statement ready. They don’t have an activities list ready. They haven’t talked to teachers about letters of recommendation, anything like that. And we know that they probably would be, based on where they’re at with their academics and their test scores and everything, ending up on a two-year track, maybe with a transfer option.

And then we have four-year students who are truly solid applicants for four-year colleges. And so we’re definitely having to prioritize and triage, chase the kids that we know need to get stuff done before that Jan. 1 or Jan. 15 deadline, which is uncomfortable. I don’t like that feeling.

I’m used to having them in class with me at least two to four days a week, and being able to say, “Okay, I’m going to work with you for 15 minutes and get you started” or do whole-group instruction. We just don’t have that kind of consistency with kids logging on.

And the tech literacy is very low, so some things are popping up that we wouldn’t have flagged normally. I had a student who didn’t understand that when a school was asking for their coursework, they were asking what classes they’re taking, because they’ve never called it coursework. But that’s something that, if I was doing it in person, I’d just say, “Oh yeah, you just put your classes there.”

The triage piece is really frustrating, and the higher education language and terminology — I felt like there had been a lot of strides made, and (the pandemic has shown) that’s just not the case.

What are some of the things that you wish that people at colleges and universities, and especially in their admissions offices, knew and understood about what’s going on with high school students right now?

I don’t think they understand how bad it is. From my conversations with admissions officers, I feel like when I have said things to them (about what high school looks like during the pandemic), that has been new information to them. I think that they’re so focused on how they are helping the students we currently have on campus that they haven’t turned the page to “we’re about to admit a cohort of students who’ve been out of high school since March of last year.” And they have not received the same education they would have if they were in the building and seeing the stability of teachers and support staff every day.

Students are not going to have the academic skills or knowledge or experience that colleges are used to seeing with a freshman class. And colleges really need to prepare for that in terms of academic and social skills.

My kids don’t turn their cameras on. They don’t talk. They very infrequently use the chat to communicate with me. That’s a very silent world that they’ve been engaging with in terms of their academic environment. I don’t think that colleges are thinking about that yet, or that they have any good ideas of how to navigate that, and what kind of supports students are going to need for that.

What are the other things that are keeping you up at night right now?

The thing that is really scary to me is that I think admission teams are really trying hard right now to think outside the box as they review applications, and really be holistic in the review, and accommodating for students with regard what is happening to them and what has happened to them due to the pandemic. But once they get in, what happens? There is a world of problems on the application side, but I think the larger implications for persistence, given how rough school has been the last year and a half for these kids, needs a hard look by people who are in charge of setting students up to be successful on a campus.

What else do you think people don’t realize about this year’s senior class?

I have 50 kids, and about 45 of them are working full-time jobs.

They got a job over the summer, or they picked up a job to support their families when the pandemic started in March, and they’ve just kept going. They’re trying to juggle a full-time 40- or 50-hour work week on top of high school, on top of applying to college, on top of literally helping pay bills, and things like that. It’s such a big ask for a high schooler, and that’s really, really tough.

Wow. Do you think that the Venture percentage of students going to college is going to be down this year?

Yes. I don’t think colleges understand how hard it is to be successful in a virtual environment for a high school student, and students’ grades are bad this year. If you look anywhere, any public school that is reporting their data, the failure percentages are insanely high. And so, first of all, I just don’t know how many kids are going to be able to graduate on time. I think we’re going to have to have a lot of August graduations because we’re going to have to do credit recovery. I also think that if it becomes really hard to get your high school diploma, how excited are you going to be to go back to school? If your destination was somewhere that isn’t that great, or a place that you don’t feel has been successful with your peers, or you don’t feel connected to, why would you go? Doing college on Zoom is not appealing. I can’t imagine signing up for that.

There’s so much that’s up in the air. Will they be back in person in the fall? That’s going to be a huge indicator. And I think that’s going to push a lot of kids to be defer till spring, which means maybe we’re looking at more community college enrollments as opposed to four-year enrollments.

I just think that college does not feel like the end right now. I think what feels like the end right now is trying to get to high school graduation.

Disclosure: Beth Hawkins, 74 senior writer and national correspondent, serves on Venture Academy’s board of directors. She played no role in the reporting and editing of this article.

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