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Concerned about the potential for another year of declines in college enrollment, especially among groups including students of color and those from low-income families, officials at state schools are exploring ways to encourage high school seniors to complete financial aid applications.
Discussion at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Tuesday keyed in on completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a key indicator of interest in attending college.
Matt Deninger, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's acting chief strategy and research officer, said that 90 percent of students who fill out the FAFSA by March 15 end up enrolling in college, compared to 70 percent for those who wait until after March 15 and 30 percent for those who do not complete it.
In a memo to board members, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley cited November 2020 statistics showing FAFSA completion rates were down by about 16 percent nationally compared to 2019, and down by about 18 percent in Massachusetts. The rate was down by 25 percent in Massachusetts high schools enrolling the most low-income students of color, the memo said.
Riley said that early data suggest "similar potential drops in college enrollment" for this year's graduating seniors as were recorded in 2020.
His memo said the state's higher education system, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, last year "experienced its largest single-year decrease in fall undergraduate enrollment since statewide systematic data collection efforts began in the late 1990s: -7%." Declines were steepest among lower-income students and students of color, Riley wrote, and while enrollment remained flat at the University of Massachusetts campuses, it dropped by 11.6 percent for community colleges and 7.7 percent at state universities.
Riley told the board that while FAFSA forms are not due until later in the year, the lag in completion rates is still "a worrying trend."
"It may be indicative of uncertainty that's taking place with this pandemic," he said. "Are parents going to finalize college choices for kids if they're not sure if the college is going to have in-person classes, for example."
Nyal Fuentes, from the department's office of college and career readiness, said state officials are taking steps to build awareness around FAFSA completion, including efforts to focus on Black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students.
The elementary and secondary education department has been working with school counselors and college access groups, he said, and met with the guidance directors of the state's three largest districts — Boston, Worcester and Springfield — which together have 6,000 seniors.
Two webinars are slated for February to communicate information to counselors about the FAFSA data and available tools.
"There's a lot of things counselors are doing," Fuentes said. "Their plates are full. So, ordinarily they would be going face-to-face, they would be talking to their students, they'd be pulling a classroom together, they'd be having FAFSA night. All that stuff moved remote for the most part, particularly in our larger districts."
James Morton, the board's vice chair and the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston, encouraged the department to work with community-based youth organizations on the issue.
"There's a network of us across the commonwealth, and that would give you almost direct and immediate access to young people, especially young people of color, who I think that it's important to target, as you've highlighted. I'd also suggest, respectfully, a public awareness campaign about this challenge."
Morton said there are many first-generation college graduates who are people of color and would be willing to virtually connect with students about financial aid forms and applying to college.
Board Chair Katherine Craven echoed the idea of involving community organizations in the effort, especially those that are offering learning pods to kids attending school remotely.
Jasper Coughlin, the board's student representative and a Billerica Memorial High School senior who recently filled out his FAFSA, suggested some sort of public service announcement to families, administrators and students about the importance of completing the application.
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