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Decline In Higher Ed Aid Applications Flagged As Worrisome

The FAFSA application appears on the studentaid.gov website. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The FAFSA application appears on the studentaid.gov website. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Applications for federal higher education financial aid declined significantly this fall, raising concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate gaps in college accessibility for vulnerable student groups.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, completion rates by Thanksgiving dropped about 16 percent nationwide and 18 percent in Massachusetts compared to the same timeframe in 2019, officials said at a Board of Higher Education meeting.

The change is even more pronounced among specific populations: for the 50 Massachusetts high schools with the largest populations of minority and low-income students, FAFSA completion rates are down about 25 percent from last year.

"This is not an indictment of staff or our schools not doing their jobs," Matt Deninger, chief strategy and research officer for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the board. "Rather, we believe this is a clear reflection of just an extremely challenging and disruptive year and huge levels of uncertainty as to what the future holds."

State education officials plan to work with school counselors and run additional analysis to determine ways to blunt the impact of declining financial aid applications, hoping to get ahead of what Deninger called "the college-going gap of 2021."

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