“We are adapting,” said Austin, a counselor with College Advising Corps., which deploys recent college graduates into high schools to guide students. “Students without reliable Internet at home may have trouble completing the form, which is a big motivation for doing a drive-in.”
Getting students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, will be no small feat this year. The pandemic has emptied school hallways where counselors can remind seniors to apply and has rendered unsafe face-to-face fairs advisers host to guide parents through the process.
The federal government, states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine need-based and some merit-based aid. Students, especially those from low-income households, miss out on billions of dollars in federal grants, work-study, subsidized student loans and state scholarships every year by failing to complete the form.
The stakes are high this year. Anemic tax revenue threatens state-sponsored scholarships just as many families find themselves grappling with job losses and furloughs. Applying early for financial aid gives students a better shot at first-come-first-serve state grants. It also means a jump-start on a process that will require a few more steps for families devastated by the recession to access the most aid.
Against that backdrop, college access groups and high school counselors are finding creative ways to reach students and their families. Some are holding FAFSA nights in parking lots with WiFi to let parents remain in their cars while advisers walk them through the application from a distance. Others are hosting virtual sessions through Zoom or beefing up websites with video tutorials and infographics for students.
“People are very concerned about so many other things right now, especially those from underserved communities,” said Shannon Grimsley, outreach program director at Get2College, a division of the nonprofit Woodward Hines Education Foundation