Americas High School students and parents filled out federal financial aid forms at a FAFSA Night in October 2019. Such in-person sessions aren't happening this year and fewer El Paso County seniors are filling out the federal financial aid forms. (Photo courtesy of Socorro Independent School District)

Fewer El Paso high school seniors are applying for federal financial aid this fall as college planning takes a back seat to more pressing pandemic issues.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened Oct. 1 and as of Nov. 27, 3,176 seniors across El Paso County’s nine school districts had completed the application, according to the most recent National College Attainment Network data. That’s a drop of 580 students, or 15.4%, compared to the same time last fall.

El Paso isn’t unique: Statewide, FAFSA completion is down 16%, similar to the 16.8% drop seen nationwide. However, the Socorro Independent School District has been able to increase FAFSA completion by including it in classes that all seniors are required to take.

The decrease in FAFSA completion doesn’t just mean that El Paso students could miss out on federal and other types of financial aid. It’s also a sign that fewer students may enroll in college next year, said Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation.

Filing a FAFSA is “a signal of postsecondary intent and aspiration,” DeBaun said. Students who submit a FAFSA are twice as likely to immediately enroll in college after graduation than those who don’t. For low-income students, FAFSA completion boosts their chances of immediately enrolling by three times.

El Paso’s decline is particularly pronounced in rural school districts.

Lisa Schoenbrun has spent the past two months texting, calling and emailing Franklin High School seniors and parents about the FAFSA, on top of scheduling social media posts with reminders about the state’s Jan. 15 priority deadline.

“It was just much easier when you could call up 20 students and have them sit down in front of a computer (in your office) and get it done,” said Schoenbrun, coordinator of the school’s GO Center, which provides college and career information.

This year, college guidance, like everything else, has gone virtual. The El Paso Independent School District, like most of the county’s large districts, is almost exclusively offering remote learning, with only select students back on campuses. Franklin students can’t drop by Schoenbrun’s office before or after school or during lunch for help with an application question. They’re missing out hearing morning intercom announcements reminding them about deadlines and don’t see college posters on hallway and classroom walls.

Schoenbrun can share her computer screen with students via Zoom, but walking them through the complex FAFSA form via video call isn’t the same as being physically together. When she meets virtually with parents, some are reluctant to share personal information, like income and previous tax data, needed to complete the form.

Socorro ISD sees increase in FAFSA applications

The Socorro Independent School District is the only El Paso area district to see gains in FAFSA completion this fall. As of Nov. 27, 12 more students had filed a FAFSA compared to the same time last year, a 1.3% increase.

SISD is also the only one of the state’s 11 major urban districts, which include EPISD and Ysleta ISD, to see an increase in completion from last year.

The increase isn’t coincidence, said Tammi Mackeben, director of school counseling. This fall, for the first time, all government and economics teachers, whose classes are required for seniors, incorporated the FAFSA into lesson plans. Students spent a few class periods learning about the form and the importance of applying for federal financial aid. They had to create the FAFSA ID needed to start the application during class and were then assigned to have their parents create an ID as homework.

SISD had planned to do this even before the pandemic in order to prepare for the 2021-22 school year when Texas high school seniors will be required to complete the FAFSA before graduation, Mackeben said.

This requirement is a legislative effort to boost the state’s completion rate. In 2019, the year state lawmakers approved the requirement, 60.5% of Texas seniors completed the FAFSA, just under the national average.

Even without a pandemic, it can be a challenge to get every senior to file a FAFSA, and application myths keep many students and parents from filing, Mackeben said.

“Things like, ‘my parents make too much money, so I don’t need to do the FAFSA,’ or ‘I’m not going to college right after high school so I don’t need to do the FAFSA,’” she said. Some families worry the personal information on the form will be shared within the federal government.

“The biggest challenge that we have is educating parents on the purpose of FAFSA and that it’s safe to do and it’s okay to do,” Mackeben said. “The only way that you know possibly you’re not getting any federal money is if you don’t do the FAFSA. And you might just luck out and get some. It might just be a little bit but it might be enough to pay for books or something small.”

Future college enrollment declines worry educators

College enrollment dropped this fall, and future declines are of concern to educators statewide. Texas’ fall enrollment was down 3% from 2019, a trend seen in El Paso.

The University of Texas at El Paso saw enrollment decrease for the first time in two decades, with 298 fewer students enrolled than last fall, a 1.2% drop. El Paso Community College enrollment fell 10%, with 2,835 fewer students enrolled this year.

El Paso college students are heavily dependent upon federal financial aid. Half of EPCC students receive some form of federal financial aid, said Keri Moe, associate vice president of external relations. More than two-thirds of UTEP undergraduates receive federal aid, said Heidi Granger, assistant vice president of UTEP’s Office of Scholarships.

The FAFSA also opens the door to other types of financial aid, as states, schools and organizations often use the form’s information to award their own scholarships and grants. Aid is often distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, which is why it’s critical students file a FAFSA no later than the January priority deadline.

Low-income and students of color in Texas, and nationwide, have seen greater declines in FAFSA completion than their peers at wealthier and whiter schools, according to NCAN’s data.

Statewide, Title I-eligible high schools — where at least 40% of students are from low-income families – have seen a 20.6% decline in FAFSA completions. At schools where Hispanic and Black students make up 40% or more of the student body, FAFSA completions are down 21.2%. That’s more than double the declines seen at Tier I-ineligible schools and campuses with fewer students of color.

“FAFSA completion is just kind of falling down the list of priorities,” especially for students facing food and housing insecurity and those who lack the technology to complete the form online, DeBaun said.

The impact of the switch from in-person to remote learning on future enrollment likely won’t be limited to the class of 2021 because “all of the college and career readiness activities scaffold over the course of a high school career,” DeBaun said.

Schoenbrun is already concerned about the possibility that next year’s seniors may not apply to college in rates seen in previous years. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors are missing out on important scholarship information this fall, she said.

“We can’t really get out and bring them into an auditorium to talk about the college process or bring them into your classroom where you’ve got that personal connection with them,” she said.

El Paso educators providing additional FAFSA help

Though there’s still time to raise the national FAFSA completion rate, “it’s going to happen only with the concerted effort of policymakers, practitioners and concerned individuals in the public really working to help students,” DeBaun said.

In October, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board launched ADVi, a chabot students can text 24/7 with questions about the college application and financial aid process. More than 100,000 high school seniors have signed up to receive text messages from ADVi.

This week, the higher education coordinating board and nonprofit Educate Texas unveiled their Future Focused Texas campaign to provide school counselors with more resources about the college application process and timeline.

UTEP and EPCC will have an additional virtual FAFSA workshop Saturday, Dec. 12, in an effort to reach students and parents unable to attend their high school’s previous workshop.

Unable to hold in-person FAFSA completion nights this year, UTEP and EPCC moved the events online, scheduling live question-and-answer sessions with close to 50 area high schools during October. Attendance wasn’t like what it was in previous years, Granger said.

Schoenberg said there’s still time for El Paso educators, students and families to raise the region’s FAFSA completion rate.

“It’s never too late,” she said, adding, “Students still have through Jan. 15 to get their FAFSA done. It will help them peddle forward rather than peddle backward.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.