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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Pandemic wipes out progress Wisconsin's disadvantaged students made in FAFSA completion

Emily Files
High schoolers arrive for the first day of the 2021-22 school year at MPS's MacDowell Montessori. The number of graduating high schoolers completing a key college financial aid form plummeted during the pandemic.

The pandemic has taken a toll on high school graduates’ postsecondary plans.

In 2019, 58% of Wisconsin high school grads enrolled in college. In 2020, that number dropped by 10 points, to 48%. Data isn't available yet for the graduating class of 2021.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum looks at a key indicator for college enrollment: FAFSA completion. The FAFSA is the federal financial aid form high schoolers fill out when applying to college. It gives qualifying students access to Pell grants, work study and federal student loans.

The number of Wisconsin students filling out the FAFSA fell 12% from 2019 and 2021.

>>FAFSA Numbers Down In Wisconsin, Raising Concern About Freshman College Enrollment

"To see a decline in FAFSAs is a really concerning signal of what may be coming in postsecondary enrollment and completion," said policy forum senior researcher Sara Shaw, who wrote the report.

Prior to the pandemic, Wisconsin made progress in getting disadvantaged students to fill out the financial aid paperwork. FAFSA completion rates increased at high schools with a majority students of color and at schools serving English learners. Then, the pandemic happened.

"We see the gains erased," said Shaw. "So looking at students who attended schools serving majority students of color, the FAFSA completion in 2019 had gotten as high as almost 53%. And by 2021 it’s down to 39.5%."

Shaw talked to school and district administrators about why they think fewer students filled out the FAFSA in 2020 and 2021.

"In the disruption of the pandemic, there were so many things to keep track of that FAFSA was not always the priority any more, and those that were trying to talk about it needed to find ways to connect with families that were different," Shaw said. "The other set of reasons, though, had more to do with decreased interest of students in going to college in the first place."

More high schools are fully back in-person this year, but it remains to be seen whether FAFSA completion rates will rebound.

The window to fill out the FAFSA opened Oct. 1, and Wisconsin is pushing for high school seniors to get moving on the application. Gov. Tony Evers declared October "FAFSA Filing Month."

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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