New research from California shows a sizable decline in applications for university financial aid during the first phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. The trend among first-year college students has not reversed itself, the data show, and declines are particularly acute in low-income neighborhoods and those with higher minority populations.

Financial aid applications are a useful proxy for college attendance, which makes it reasonable to wonder whether fewer completed FAFSA forms today will lead to less college attendance tomorrow. Prior research on the FAFSA process has suggested that its complexity may already undermine efforts to enroll more students in post-secondary programs.

The new findings point to developments at the state level that groups like the National College Attainment Network and the National Student Clearinghouse have previously flagged across the country. In the spring, analysts saw a year-over-year decrease of over 350,000 returning students renewing their FAFSA aid. Applications from incoming freshmen dropped steeply at the same time.

But in a brief report published in the journal Educational Researcher, University of Missouri professor Oded Gurantz found that within a few months, aid applications among current undergraduates and graduate students was 8 percent higher than in previous years.

“For older students — we’re talking about older people who maybe have some prior college experience or are thinking of going to graduate school — we see a decline in March, but it actually rebounds over time,” Gurantz said in an interview. “By June and July, there’s actually more people submitting the FAFSA than there are relative to prior years. For traditional freshmen…there’s actually a pretty big overall decline for FAFSA submissions. It goes down and really never recovers.”

The findings depart in some ways from patterns observed during previous times of social and economic uncertainty. Traditionally, contractions in the job market lead more people to pursue education as a means of honing professional skills and waiting out the tough times. During the Great Recession, for instance, America’s two-year colleges experienced a 33 percent increase in enrollment.

But the disruptions imposed by COVID-19 have upended the familiar college experience in ways that administrators and industry leaders have struggled to address. With many two-year and four-year colleges offering virtual coursework and slimmed-down campus amenities, the 2020-21 school year looks like none other in recent memory.

Read the full article about FAFSA Applications during COVID by Kevin Mahnken at The 74.