It was March 13 — about the time when Mississippi schools closed as the coronavirus pandemic spread — when the number of completed federal student aid applications in Mississippi started to plummet.

“We were devastated,” said Ann Hendrick, director of Get2College, a program through Woodward Hines Education Foundation that specializes in helping students with college planning.

A core part of the Get2College program is helping students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which the organization considers a “first step” in paying for college. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaders of the program had to cancel 20 events that aimed to help students with FAFSA completion. Other foundational institutions that usually help students with financial aid quickly began to shut down as well. 

“Community colleges were closing. They have FAFSA Fridays. They helped us in the schools. Teachers always keep kids on target. Counselors keep students on target. So we knew that (students) were losing everything that they had,” Hendrick said. 

As of May 8, the most recent data available, the state’s FAFSA completion is down by 8.2 percent. By comparison, the national average for FAFSA completion is down by 3.1 percent. Alabama’s FAFSA completion rate is down 3.2 percent.

And in Mississippi, Title I schools, which are schools with a high number of low-income students, are down by 11.3 percent, meaning students who need financial assistance the most are experiencing the sharpest decline in getting it.

If college hopefuls in Mississippi don’t complete this step, it will mean they won’t get federal financial aid to help pay for college and will lessen the odds that they start their higher education in the fall; tuition alone in the state costs around $8,300.  

This distinct decline can be attributed in part to the fact that Mississippi finished last year with the third highest FAFSA completion rate in the country. The state trailed only Louisiana, which makes FAFSA completion a graduation requirement, and Tennessee, which requires students to fill out the FAFSA in order to be eligible for the HOPE scholarship, which provides monies to eligible high school residents of the state. 

“Part of the reason that Mississippi is doing so badly in the year over year ranking is that it had a particularly strong year last year,” said Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation at the National College Attainment Network. “When you have a particularly strong year, to get to that same level of FAFSA completion takes a herculean effort in general.”

Hendrick said that before COVID-19, Mississippi was more or less on track with its FAFSA completion numbers from last year.

“We were down a little bit, but not far,” she said. “And if you look at the numbers in Mississippi, the gap is widening. It started on March 13 and it just continues to widen.”

The reasons why students aren’t completing the FAFSA are vast. In part, the issue further highlights the glaring issue of Mississippi’s digital divide, a term used to describe the fact that many people do not have access to reliable Internet or basic technology. 

Tori Langworthy, assistant director of outreach at Get2College, spends much of her time working with students in the Mississippi Delta, where reliable Internet access sorely lacks. The work that she used to be able to get through in an hour with her students is now taking two to three days because they’re completing the FAFSA on their phones using data in lieu of Internet access. 

The process gets held up when students have to hang up because their phones are about to die or because they have to buy more data. 

“I’ve been working on a FAFSA with one student for two weeks now because I’ll call and then she’ll call and we’ll talk for a second. (She’ll say), ‘OK, well let me get back to you. I’ve got to get this information.’ And it’s taken a two week process because it’s just hard to get the information. You can’t go to the tax office. You don’t have a computer to pull your taxes up on. I mean, if there’s a barrier, they have it,” Langworthy said. 

Some students aren’t completing the FAFSA because they immediately started working when the pandemic hit. Others are first-generation college goers and don’t live with anyone who has the firsthand experience to guide them through the process. Still, others can’t get necessary tax information from the IRS because stimulus check distributions and other tax processes are taking priority. 

Langworthy also said that the 2020 FAFSA goes off 2018 taxes, so if a family has lost most or all of their income because of layoffs, that isn’t being reflected in their FAFSA forms. Individual higher education institutions are working with families experiencing this on a case-by-case basis to make adjustments to their financial aid. 

Jennifer Jackson Hall, a counselor at Ray Brooks School in Benoit, said that most of her seniors completed their FAFSAs before the pandemic hit. Some of those who are trying to get funding in order for summer school are running into issues with IRS verification because they don’t have a printer. 

“They may have the Internet or an electronic device, but then they can’t print out the form or scan it and email it back,” Jackson Hall said.

This decrease in access to student financial aid has obvious implications for college enrollment in the fall, especially for low-income students. 

“I think it will encourage them to shy away from the idea of higher education because if they’re not doing their FAFSA, they’re not getting funds to pay for college,” said TJ Walker, the director of Get2College’s North Mississippi office. “The pandemic is causing people to panic because they need money, so maybe the students … are working at Fred’s or the gas station. They’re getting that check every two weeks and that check feels good because it’s probably the most money they’ve ever made in their life. They think that that’s an upgrade, which it probably is an upgrade for that student … some students may just choose to stay there forever and never even consider the college thing after this.”

While the current FAFSA completion outlook is bleak, there are silver linings. Students can complete next year’s FAFSA for the 2020-21 year as late as June 30, 2021. Mississippi experienced a late bounce last year with FAFSA completion, and it’s possible that could happen again, DeBaun said. 

People like Walker, Hendrick and Langworthy continue to offer college planning services for free to anyone who reaches out. Jackson Hall continues to help her students find ways to work through FAFSA completion challenges. Companies like FormSwift are offering free templates for students to write financial hardship letters. 

“We have time to turn this around,” Hendrick said. “A dip in FAFSA completion doesn’t mean they cannot get back on track, and we could see those numbers push forward. And so the message really needs to be (that students) need to act now as if things will move forward so that if they do they’re ready.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.