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As Coronavirus Sparks FAFSA Application Drop-Off, Arne Duncan Tells Prospective College Students Not to ‘Derail’ Their Progress

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Amid the economic uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, fewer high school seniors are applying for federal financial aid, according to figures by the firm Data Insight Partners.

Since campuses nationwide began closing in mid-March, the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has decreased by 2.6 percent compared with the same period last year. That decrease translates to roughly 51,000 fewer students submitting federal financial aid forms and about $105 million in unallocated Pell Grants.

For students, the decrease could come with lasting implications since FAFSA completion rates are correlated with college enrollment. In order to encourage more applications, former education secretary Arne Duncan offered a few words of encouragement to prospective college-goers. Given the widespread uncertainty, it’s “more important than ever” for students to complete their financial aid applications, Duncan, who led the Education Department under then-President Barack Obama, said in a new video.

“For so many families, completing the form is an important step on the path to pursuing their dreams,” Duncan said in the video, part of a competition by the nonprofit Chiefs for Change to encourage FAFSA completion in 20 school districts. The FAFSA deadline for the upcoming school year is June 30. “Across the nation, families are struggling to cope with the pandemic, but we cannot allow this crisis to derail students’ educational progress.”

With K-12 campuses closed and abruptly transitioning to online learning, college advisers have gotten creative in helping students create plans for their futures. While some counselors have called families to remind them of the approaching FAFSA deadline, others have held online sessions to help students complete the application.

Teens in high-poverty districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than those in more affluent school systems, according to the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. But the effect of the pandemic is already coming into focus, with multiple surveys suggesting that the virus could have major ramifications on college enrollment and affordability. Moody’s Investors Service has reached a similar conclusion. After years of concern over rising college costs and student loan debt, the bond ratings agency forecasts a global drop in college enrollment next academic year.

The Chiefs for Change competition seeks to recognize school district efforts to boost FAFSA completion rates. Among the 20 school systems competing, the San Antonio Independent School District is currently in the lead, with 74 percent of high school seniors having completed the form as of April 24. But at the school district in Midland, Texas, only a third of students have completed the form so far.

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