Texas enrollment and FAFSA applications down, as education leaders worry pandemic is disrupting college plans

The number of Texas high school seniors filling out the federal financial aid application for college, known as FAFSA, is down so far from last year, a sign worrying state higher education leaders that the COVID-19 pandemic is still disrupting many students' pathway to college.

According to the National College Attainment Network's FAFSA tracker, just 24% of Texas seniors have filled out the vital Free Application for Federal Student Aid as of Nov. 20, a 14.6% decline compared to the same time last year.

Preliminary enrollment data from the state shows this fall's college enrollment was down 3%, or more than 47,000 students, primarily among community colleges.

The enrollment and application data was discussed at a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board press conference, where officials said they are concerned that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting underrepresented students, including low-income students, Hispanic and Black students, and rural students.

Higher education leaders across Texas say high school counselors are struggling to connect with students virtually and students aren't receiving the same information about college applications and financial aid that they would be if they were in school every day.

"A year ago it was really easy to find a high school senior in the hall at the school, but now the student may not even be in the building," said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the nonprofit Educate Texas, on a call with reporters Tuesday.

To combat the declines, the state recently launched a public-private partnership called Future Focused Texas to better support counselors and students, and maintain the state's college enrollment numbers during the pandemic.

The program includes weekly resources that school counselors can pass to students with deadlines, financial aid eligibility requirements and FAFSA supports. The state also created a new chatbot called ADVi that can immediately answer students' questions 24 hours a day, send reminder texts and connect students with virtual advisers during the week.

So far, 700 counselors across the state have already opted into the program, but the group is trying to double that number. More than 100,000 high school seniors have signed up for the text message program.

Program leaders say they are trying to meet students where they are on social media.

"They will listen to another kid on Tik Tok or something a lot more than me as their dad," said Fitzpatrick, referring to his own teenagers. "We're trying to use the same tools to create this sense of this online community so kids and families can do the same thing they do with Amazon to apply and get into college."

Students can also get feedback from peers on the college admissions essays.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in Texas' progress toward its 60x30 plan, which aims to ensure 60% of Texans age 25 to 34 have some kind of postsecondary credential by 2030. According to a report presented to the board in October, progress had slowed between 2015 and 2018 so the state was already unlikely to meet that goal by its deadline.

"Accelerating progress will require strengthening academic preparation, support and advising in K-12 and higher education to improve higher education completions in Texas," the report stated. "It also will require the state's ability to make a strong recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Texas schools and the economy."

While the program is focused on high school seniors, juniors can also opt in to the new text message program by texting COLLEGE to (512) 829-3687.

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