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Through this series, we examine the disproportionate financial toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, including how it has affected individuals, families and businesses.

College Financial Aid Applications Drop, Especially Among Low-Income Students

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently welcomed middle and high school students, pictured, back for in-person classes. The rate of applications for financial aid for college students has fallen both nationally and in North Carolina.

Está historia está disponible en español en La Noticia

Getting first-generation and low-income students to apply for college is always a challenge, according to Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. But she says the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

“The challenge in higher education is reaching students and families who are our lower-income and first-generation college students,” Williams said.

Not only are application rates for first-generation and low-income students down, but so are applications for FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In North Carolina, the overall FAFSA completion rate is down 8.7%, according to the National College Attainment Network. For Title I and high-minority schools, the rate is down by 12%.

“It is a daunting challenge for many to look at the price of education without understanding the amount of support that is available, both in need-based and in merit-based aid,” Williams said.

A study from the Education Strategy Group found that each year an estimated $3.4 billion in aid is left on the table as students fail to fill out FAFSA applications. On average, 66% of Latino students complete the FAFSA each year, compared to 74% of Black students and 82% of white students.

Williams says that to get any federal financial aid students must submit their FAFSA applications. She says many students are surprised at the help they can get.

“The challenge is helping those who are not as familiar with the college application process to understand that if they apply and work with their financial aid offices, that there is every chance that college could be affordable for them,” Williams said.

This need for support through the college application process, especially during a pandemic, is what made LatinxEd launch its college counseling initiative College y Consejos in August.

Lina Palancares, a coach in the program, says that so far, the program has provided free services to 82 Latino students in North Carolina. She says she hears a lot of similar concerns.

“In a lot of the introductory meetings, they’re like, ‘I don't know how financial aid works. And I know that money is going to be a huge stressor for both me and my family, so any help that you can kind of give with, like, finding scholarships and stuff like that, we'd be really thankful,’” Palancares said.

Palancares says first generation students are in particular need for this kind of support.

“Sometimes not even knowing the right questions to ask because they're kind of even confused about what that starting point is to get to their end goal,” Palancares said.

She says support from the program includes informing students about the options available to them — whether they should go to community college, take a gap year or apply to a four-year school. But regardless of the path they choose, Palancares says that besides applying to college, the next crucial step is filling out the FAFSA.

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Maria Ramirez Uribe is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.