Illinois made it a high school graduation requirement this year for seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA.
It’s no surprise, then, that Illinois is ranked as the top state for FAFSA filing. But the percentage of completions so far is only 46%. There have been 6,000 fewer completions in Illinois than last year.
The pandemic has likely played a role in that, according to Xiaodan Hu, assistant professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University. She says low-income city and rural schools are where rates typically fall.
“So, [my] first guess is that COVID has reduced their intent to enroll in college. I would think that students from lower-income families may face lots of other challenges. We know that job loss has primarily been for lower-income kind of jobs,” she said.
With the digital divide more prevalent than ever, Hu says it’s important to consider how you’re getting them the FAFSA information they need.
“Are we including all students, right, students that do not have technology? Are we mailing this information to them? Are we checking if the content aligns with the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]?” said Hu. “It’s important; sometimes we rush to put the content together and forget about all sorts of groups of students.”
Hu said they could rely on more community-based organizations if the school can’t do as much in-person financial aid outreach due to the pandemic.
She said she hopes students whose families have been significantly impacted by the pandemic know they can file for a professional judgment review to adjust their financial aid because of layoffs, medical bills or other special circumstances.
Some northern Illinois districts like Streator and Earlville are seeing year-to-year decreases of 50%. Rockford Public Schools is down 20%.
Illinois also has the RISE Act. It allows undocumented and transgender students who are disqualified from FAFSA to receive state financial aid.
The deadline for students to fill out the 2020-21 FAFSA is June 30, 2021.