Parternership for Los Angeles Schools
Mendez High counselors help students complete financial aid applications in the school's college center.

With applications for federal and state student aid lagging among California high school seniors, one school is optimistic that it can build on previous success and encourage its students to apply.

But challenges remain.

Last year and for the third consecutive time, Los Angeles’ Mendez High became one of the top high schools in the state to have its senior class submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for financial aid for college despite the pandemic. But like much of the state, applications this year are dramatically low.

Mendez High was one of a few high schools last year to win the commission’s Race to Submit program, which encourages schools, counselors and students to complete the FAFSA. Last year, the school had 236 seniors, of which 84% completed a FAFSA or Dream Act application.

College and high school students use the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid and grants. The California Dream Act application allows students who are undocumented or who participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to qualify for state financial aid. Although students may apply for aid at any time, the state’s priority deadline is March 2.

California’s FAFSA completion rate among 12th graders is down this year compared with previous years. Compared with Jan. 14 last year, California is down 5% in high school seniors completing a FAFSA application. According to the national FAFSA tracker, of the approximately 512,000 12th graders in the state, only 139,138 had completed the application as of Jan. 14.

Nationally, as of Jan. 14, 31.4% of the Class of 2022 has completed a FAFSA, a 0.3% increase compared to the same time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network, or NCAN. But last year’s application numbers were lower than previous years due to the pandemic. The graduating class of 2021 completed 4.8% fewer FAFSA than the class of 2020.

Patrick Perry, the director of policy, research and data at the California Student Aid Commission, described the decrease in applications this year as “concerning,” especially once one examines the population that is not completing applications. He said the pandemic has made it more difficult for high school counselors to be able to work with students to complete the forms.

“We’re hearing from educators at the K-12 level that a lot of them are just trying to function and keep their schools open and deal with Covid,” said Michael Lemus, program outreach and marketing manager at the commission. “They want to talk to them about financial aid, but they just don’t have the bandwidth or the time to even get to that conversation.”

Fewer low-income students are completing the application, he said. “It’s needier and poor students where the bulk of it is down.” The maximum federal Pell Grant award for low-income students for the 2022-23 academic year is $8,370.

Among students under age 19 with no prior college experience and from families with less than $40,000 in annual income, only 100,211 had completed a FAFSA as of Jan. 18. Last year, about 23,000 more students from the same background had the application completed, according to the commission.

However, nationally 3.3% more low-income students have completed a FAFSA, as of Jan. 14, compared to last year, according to NCAN. But since the start of the pandemic, far fewer low-income students have been completing applications. For example, the Class of 2021 had 190,000 fewer FAFSA completions compared to 2019.

Applications are also down for students who submit a Dream Act application. These students can’t receive the Pell Grant but qualify for state aid like the Cal Grant.

As of Jan. 18, 2,703 Dream Act applications were completed, about 330 fewer than 2021 and more than 2,600 fewer than in 2020 before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our high schools are having a real problem getting it done this year,” Perry said, adding that the trend is so much lower than in previous years that it’s doubtful the number of applications will catch up by the March deadline.

At Mendez High, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, most students are from low-income families, and the school needs resources to help them.  The school has a high free- and reduced-lunch population at 94.6%, according to Ed Data. The school is also part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit organization that helps to manage and support traditionally under-resourced public schools in LA Unified. They currently manage 19 schools in Boyle Heights, South LA and Watts.

Before the pandemic, Mendez High would use its college center to provide students with individual support on completing college applications and financial aid forms, said Lissett Gomez, who works through the partnership to be a college counselor at the school.

But now, even when students mainly were virtual, counselors would message students on social media, reach out to their parents or visit them in person at their homes to encourage them or help them complete an application, Gomez said.

“The other thing that helps us is that we have an early deadline for our students,” she said, adding that the school doesn’t advertise the March 2 state deadline to students but requires they complete the applications by the end of January. “We know how it is with students waiting until the last minute. We give ourselves and the students that cushion so that we’re able to capture everyone.”

The high school doesn’t just counsel students through the FAFSA process, but also their parents.

Ailene Rodriguez, a Mendez graduate studying engineering at California State University Maritime Academy, said once she began filling out the application, her “section was pretty easy,” she said. “It asked me what colleges I would like to apply for, my name and address, just pretty simple stuff. The hard part was the part that my dad had.”

Rodriguez’s father, Jesus, said he never went to college, so he was unfamiliar with the FAFSA before his daughter brought it to his attention.

“What made it a little easier was a meeting one day when the school just opened up their library and had a bunch of volunteers of teachers and faculty that helped us through the process,” he said.

But this year, applications are lagging. Of the 236 seniors enrolled in the high school this year, and with a little more than a month to go, only 40 or 16% have completed an application, according to the commission’s Race to Submit dashboard.

“It is a little bit of a struggle right now,” said Marisol Maldonado, a college success adviser at the high school through the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. “This past week, attendance was not great at the school, as with many other schools, because of Covid.”

Gomez said the high school is also down a full-time college counselor, from a team of four to three. The counselor who left for another school had an excellent track record with students.

“We were very lucky,” she said. “I don’t think had we had just two people working in the college center during the pandemic that we would’ve been able to reach the numbers that we did before. … It was really that we had four people working on financial aid that we were able to maintain our numbers then.”

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a new requirement for high schools to show they pushed hard for students to complete the FAFSA. They have to encourage all their high school seniors to complete a financial aid form or declare they want to opt out of completing the application.

Although the law isn’t a “hard mandate” like a graduation requirement, Perry said, “schools need to certify that they did their best to get every student to fill out a FAFSA.”

Other states have seen their FAFSA number increase significantly when they’ve made it a graduation requirement. For example, Louisiana became the first state to make the application a graduation requirement and within three years saw their completion numbers increase by more than 24%. Tennessee was one of the first states to guarantee free community college if students completed the FAFSA. In 2021, both states led the country with a 71% completion rate in Tennessee and 68% in Louisiana, according to the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit organization.

Perry said there is some anxiety about whether California’s new requirement will improve FAFSA completion numbers.

“But it is our expectation that it will bump up our rates,” he said. “In the past, California’s had just below 60% of its students fill out a FAFSA, and that’s up over the last 10 or 15 years from 30% or so. So we’ve already done a lot of work on this.”

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  1. Caesar Gomez 3 months ago3 months ago

    I am interested to know and understand why rates are dropping. Is it because students are deciding not going to college at all to avoid facing any more financial burden to them and their families? Is this aligned with dropped rates in college applications? It would be good if the schools could gather and collect data to ask students why they are choosing not to apply.