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Why Fewer College-Bound Tennesseans Are Completing Financial Aid Applications

Courtesy Metro Nashville Public Schools

It’s already challenging enough getting students ready for college during a traditional school year. But now, statewide socially distanced learning, and all virtual school for seniors in Nashville, is making the process much more difficult.

FAFSA completions are down 21% statewide and 31% in Davidson County, according to the latest available data from the National College Attainment Network. In Davidson County’s Antioch community, completions are down 40%.

Generally, walking a kid through the financial aid process might seem simple, but it’s a time consuming task that’s rooted in nailing the small details.

The assistance can be as simple as creating a financial aid ID, or making sure students have email addresses and remember their passwords. Sometimes it’s also tough working with parents to track down tax returns and other personal information.

Year-Over-Year change in other school districts:

  • Williamson County: down 6%
  • Wilson County: down 36%
  • Rutherford County: down 18%
  • Putnam County: down 22%
  • Sumner County: down 25%

Traditionally, school counselors and college access advisors have been able to pull kids out of classrooms and even give them face-to-face presentations on how to properly fill out financial aid forms. That hasn’t quite happened this school year.
“I don’t think we’re at a panic stage yet. We have time to complete the FAFSA,” says John-Paul Gray, who works on the college access team at Metro Nashville Public Schools. “We have boots on the ground.”

Metro Schools made adjustments by shifting their strategy to phone calls and video chats, but it’s been a rough process given unexpected technical glitches.

In an ideal virtual setting, college access advisors would be able to walk students through financial aid applications over a video call. That process has proven challenging as the district says it’s not unusual for the mobile FAFSA app to crash. Sometimes they’re lucky if it works at all.

Gray says the pandemic, however, is forcing education leaders to revaluate how to make the transition to higher education less complicated for students.

“There are so many things coming to light that we have been preaching about for years,” Gray says, pointing to the difficult and time-consuming process of completing financial aid applications.

Getting through the challenges

Like other districts, Metro Schools ran into the same challenges during the early push to get students signed up for Tennessee Promise. The deadline was extended due to statewide application declines.

So, the district enlisted a team of community parters, including Persist Nashville and Conexión Américas to make phone calls to students. Metro Schools is also working with Nashville State Community College which recently put together a FAFSA drive-thru session.

“FAFSA is very personal, obviously, because it’s people’s finances … so in the virtual environment, it’s a little bit harder,” says Megan Cusson-Lark, the executive director of Metro Schools’ counseling program. “But we’re trying to be creative and innovative to find ways that we can still offer personalized support in a safe environment.”

Cusson-Lark also says the district”s numbers are sometimes skewed when it comes to completed FAFSA applications.

Data includes undocumented students, who don’t qualify for FAFSA, as well as seniors receiving exceptional education diplomas. These students can stay in school until they’re 22 years old.

Still, the year-over-year completion rate is down compared to last school year. The district also doesn’t have an official count of how many undocumented students are actually in the district.

Closing the gap in Antioch

Schools in Antioch have had to take additional steps to address language barriers because of a high population of English language learners, says board member Fran Bush.

She’s spoken with both the Antioch high school principals. The schools, generally, are some of the most crowded in the district. At Antioch High School, the building capacity is at 93.6%. At times, Cane Ridge High School has reached 109% of its capacity.

The two schools have had a lot of support to assist students, but the large numbers can make kids harder to reach — especially in the virtual setting.

“Guidance counselors are reaching out to every family to get them the support to register students for college,” Bush says.

© Nashville Public Radio

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