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Fewer applications for college financial aid could signal continued dip in higher ed enrollments – TribLIVE

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The number of high school students applying for state and federal college aid has continued to decline across Pennsylvania, state leaders said, nixing hopes that figures would begin to rebound.

Applications for the FAFSA — short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid — were down by about 30,000 by mid-March compared to the same period last year, officials with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency said. The almost 10% decrease continues a downward trend that started when the covid-19 pandemic largely upended traditional classroom settings and left several schools shuttered.

“The past two years have been challenging for students across Pennsylvania, and we want to do everything we can to ensure that students aren’t passing up on the resources that are available to enroll in and successfully pay for college,” said Elizabeth McCloud, PHEAA vice president for grants and special services.

Almost every county across the state saw a drop in applications, including Allegheny and Westmoreland.

So far this year, 25,040 applications were received from students in Allegheny County, a 10% decrease when compared to last year. Westmoreland County students have submitted 6,770 applications so far, which is about an 11% decrease.

McCloud attributed the drop to ongoing impacts from the pandemic. She also noted that students are simply not enrolling in colleges and universities as they take advantage of higher-wage jobs that don’t require a post-secondary degree. Several companies, such as Target and Walmart, have significantly raised wages over the past year to attract and retain employees.

“That work’s really appealing in the short term, and they’re maybe not thinking as long term about the impact of not pursuing a post-high school degree,” McCloud said.

Another year of fewer applications also comes on the heels of a steep decline in post-secondary enrollments, sparking concerns that those trends could continue in coming years.

Last fall, several area schools reported a dip in enrollment. At the time, administrators speculated anxiety related to pandemic surges as well as financial restraints.

The decline was sharpest at community colleges and regional four-year public universities. Enrollment slipped to 88,651, or a 5.4% decrease, across Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities last fall. That was a low not seen since 1986. Nationally, post-secondary schools saw a 3.3% decline in enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

According to McCloud, officials were hoping to see a return of students last year who chose not to attend college in 2020. That didn’t happen.

“Only 2% of them came back and enrolled in fall of 2021,” she said. “So we didn’t see the rebound in that particular group that we had been hoping to see. Again, time will tell what we see moving forward into the 2022-23 academic year, but it is concerning to see application rates down now.”

In response, state officials urge students to submit the FAFSA as a May 1 deadline approaches for the Pennsylvania State Grant Program. The deadline for federal financial aid is June 30.

“Timing is crucial,” said state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline. “Students must complete the FAFSA as soon as possible to maximize their eligibility for all types of student aid and some types of aid are first come, first served. If a student delays or misses a deadline, they could miss out on thousands of dollars in student aid funding.”

This year, the state’s grant program is assisting more than 103,000 students. The grant is capped at a $5,000 maximum.

According to McCloud, 76% of state grant recipients also are receiving a federal Pell Grant, which can total as much as $6,495 for the current year.

“That’s as much as almost $11,500 that’s at risk of being left on the table if students don’t submit the FAFSA for next year,” McCloud said. “Just imagine what a huge difference that can make to a student.”

More information about the FAFSA can be found at www.PHEAA.org by going under the headings for College Planning.

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, mtomasic@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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