A few weeks ago, ahead of a nor’easter that unleashed biting winds and snow across New England, Alyssa Washington, a high school senior who wants to be a nurse, made her big college decision: Not to go next fall.

There was no single reason. Rather, mounting obstacles led Washington, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, a public school in New Haven, to hit pause. She had not finished the Common App, a shared application form used by more than 900 colleges and universities; had struggled to write her application essay; had lost her password for Naviance, which collects transcripts, recommendation letters and other forms needed to apply; and — like many students in low-income districts this year — had not filled out the FAFSA, the federal financial aid application form.

It didn’t help that a favorite aunt got Covid. (She recovered.) Or that class was remote, amplifying the isolation and monotony that have defined this school year. Washington, who would be the first in her family to go to college, had always planned to attend. But applying suddenly felt overwhelming.

As incomplete application tasks piled up, she said, “I thought, ‘Is this really something I want to do?’ I came to the conclusion that right now is not my time.”

Applying to college has always been harder for first-generation and low-income students than for peers with greater access to support at every step of the process. This year, data shows, that gulf has widened.

“What we are really worried about, simply put, is: ‘Will we miss out on an entire generation of students going to college?’ ” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “If the pandemic has highlighted anything” about admissions, he said, it is “how the system perpetuates inequality” and how complex applying has become.

Common App data through Feb. 15 showed applications up 11 percent overall from a year ago — yet down 1.6 percent among first-generation students and flat among low-income students. Overall FAFSA completion, a harbinger of college-going intent, was 9.2 percent behind the prior year on Feb. 19.  However, in high schools serving lower-income students, it lagged 12.1 percent, and in schools with a high percentage of students of color, the decline was 14.6 percent.

The FAFSA drop represents “a gobsmacking number,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for the National College Attainment Network. It makes it less likely that low-income students will be able to attend, as many colleges and universities commit financial aid money to others ahead of those who apply later.

Read the full article about college enrollment by Laura Pappano at The Hechinger Report.