College Financial Aid Applications Drop in 2020


Many high schools switched to virtual learning during the pandemic and put traditional FAFSA briefings online. However, the FAFSA does ask for a lot of detailed information and while general counseling sessions are a start, according to auxiliary experts, students often need personal help to fill out the form.

Economy & Economy


Apr. 18, 2020 at 12:25 am ET

The pandemic and the move to virtual learning added to the challenge of helping students fill out the form, said Nathan J. Daun-Barnett, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at New York State University at Buffalo and an expert on College access. The university is partnering with Say Yes Buffalo, a local nonprofit group, and regional schools on an FAFSA graduation project that recruits PhD students as paid interns to work one-on-one with students to fill out the FAFSA and related documents.

Before the pandemic, the interns would have met individually with students from the local high schools to fill out the forms. Now students can schedule virtual visits with 42 interns, but sometimes the technology can be a challenge. For example, there have been instances where a student tries to complete FAFSA from home on a cell phone while talking to the intern on the same phone. “It’s not an optimal way to complete the process,” he said.

Advisors to the Leonardo da Vinci High School in Buffalo, who has received recognition for their efforts to get students to graduate from FAFSA, say this year has been a challenge as their students have been studying remotely since April. But they said the university interns are a great help.

Cheryl Shul, one of the school’s two counselors, said they could usually just pull the students out of class if needed and let them work on the form. This year, she and her colleague are relying even more heavily on phone calls, reminder apps, texts, and emails to keep students moving. “We’re good at tracking them,” she said.

Consultants also had to be flexible about the normal boundaries of the working day. Last year, Ms. Shul said, she may not have responded to a student text with a FAFSA question late that night. But this year she usually answers, knowing that if you wait until the next day it can be more difficult to reach the student.

Schools looking for ideas to reach out to students can visit the merit network website, which has a guide to completing the FAFSA.