For college-bound students, filling out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is one of the final steps in applying to college and deciding to attend.
Nearly every student pursuing a postsecondary degree fills out the FAFSA. The form is required to get federal student loans and grants, and colleges use the FAFSA to make decisions about the financial aid they offer students.
Just over half of New Hampshire’s high school seniors have filled out the FAFSA this year, according to U.S. Department of Education data, indicating a plan to attend community college or a four-year school in the fall.
This year, 7% fewer New Hampshire high schoolers are filling out the form than last year, according to U.S. Department of Education data — almost 600 fewer students than last year.
The dip points to students’ changing post-graduation plans, though rates vary widely by district and by school.
For example, Nashua High School North has seen 21% fewer students fill out the FAFSA compared to this time last year, according to U.S. Department of Education data, and 9% fewer Nashua High School South students have filled out the form.
Uncertain family finances have played a big role, said guidance counselor Lori Coutu, of Nashua South.
Students may be putting off college — and some may be waiting to fill out the form until their families file their 2020 tax returns, to give colleges and the U.S. Department of Education a more current picture of post-pandemic family income.
But Jackie Hackett, director of guidance at Nashua North, said her counselors are seeing students take advantage of some of the work opportunities the pandemic — and remote learning — opened up.
“So many of our kids have chosen to work during the day,” Hackett said. Because Nashua schools were remote for so much of the year, students had more flexibility with the hours they were in class. Many would get out of live online classes at 11:45 a.m., Hackett said, and be at work by noon.
High-schoolers who have gotten a foot in the door are seeing the appeal of going straight to work, she said.
“I’m not just talking Market Basket,” Hackett said. “I’m talking places with benefits.”
Some may be waiting a year or two, working full-time to put away some money for tuition or help their families, she said. Some may apply to college later, and others might forgo higher education.
“The trend of students working is definitely a really interesting result of the pandemic,” she said.
Another trend Hackett has seen is students applying for short-term certificate programs. Those programs are not currently eligible for federal student aid, so students enrolling there do not typically fill out the federal aid forms.
All of the uncertainty of the pandemic has also made some students afraid to commit to college. They wonder if the debt will be worth it, Hackett said — especially if they may have to spend a semester or more remote, if a COVID-19 mutation takes off, or a new virus arrives.
The pandemic has affected students who have chosen college, too, Hackett said. All the uncertainty has pushed more students to stay close to home. She said more than usual, students are picking in-state schools, or schools in the University of Massachusetts system.
“Which is different than past years,” she said.