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

Emily Files
Milwaukee Public Schools valedictorians and salutatorians are recognized at a May 2019 school board meeting. High school counselors and colleges are worried fewer high school graduates will enroll in college this fall.

In fall of 2020, U.S. colleges and universities saw a 13% drop in freshman enrollment, likely due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they’re worried it might happen again.

READ: COVID-19 Is Making College Planning More Difficult For Milwaukee High Schoolers

There’s been a 9% decline nationwide in the number of high school seniors filling out the federal college financial aid application, also known as the FAFSA.

FAFSA completion rates are a strong indicator of college enrollment in the fall. Wisconsin students are even farther behind — with FAFSA completion down 12% compared to this time last year.

The high schools with the largest declines in FAFSA completion are those serving lots of low-income students and students of color — schools like Park High School in Racine, where Jennifer Binneboese is lead counselor. FAFSA completion at Park is down 32% compared to last year.

“I think a lot of [students] have just kind of put college and some of those steps on the back burner,” Binneboese says. “And they’re just trying to get through – ‘I have to pick up extra hours at work because maybe one my parents got laid off or their hours got cut.’ So I’ve seen a lot of our kids working more and college has been put as a back thought.”

Plus, students often need hands-on help in applying to college. Racine Unified schools were virtual until early March – making it hard to track down students and tackle paperwork.

“I think our kids are so used to us walking them through that process, holding their hand, giving them that constant nudge,” Binneboese says. “Like, ‘Hey did you fill out your FAFSA, did you turn in your applications, did you do this?’ And when you don’t have that face time, it’s a struggle.”

The same has been true in Milwaukee Public Schools, which remain virtual.

Pilar Olvera is a College Possible coach for about 30 students at MPS’s Hamilton High School. She has relied on Facebook, texts and video calls to communicate with students.

“Compared to last year, there’s obviously a huge change in the environment they’re in – everything is virtual,” Olvera says. “Last year it was very much easy to find students, access students … get them out of class or find them in the hallway.”

MPS usually has strong FAFSA completions numbers. But this year, the district is lagging more than 30% behind. MPS College Access Coordinator Ericca Pollack says counselors are still working hard to reach students.

“Really it’s just prioritizing getting those steps done to move forward on college,” Pollack says. “And everything that our students have been faced with through the pandemic – these processes might not have been front and center. But the great news is there is still time to fill out the FAFSA. And our efforts will continue through the spring and throughout the summer.”

Students still have time to fill out the FAFSA, depending on where they are applying to college. Many area colleges have rolling deadlines.

WUWM's Emily Files speaks with Shaun Keating, the undergrad admissions director at Cardinal Stritch University and Mark Quistorf, the director of financial aid at the university about college enrollment this fall.

It’s not just high school counselors who are worried about the class of 2021. Colleges are eager to get those students in the door. At University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, freshman enrollment last year dropped 14%.

“While our enrollment had been declining ever so slightly in that freshman class over the course of the last couple of years, this was a drop that was quite unprecedented for us,” said UWM Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Kay Eilers.

Universities are responding to the enrollment declines by making it easier to apply. For example, UWM started using the Common App, which allows students to apply to multiple schools in one go. Eilers says the change seems to have worked because applications are up.

“We’re excited and hopeful, but again – not taking anything for granted,” Eilers says. “We want to make sure we do everything in our power to get students in to UWM.”

How many of those students will actually enroll at UWM remains to be seen. But Eilers is hopeful that the school’s plans to get “back to normal” this fall with in-person education will encourage freshman to show up on campus in greater numbers than they did last year.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.