University of Washington students walk through The Quad in September as the school year begins, much of it online because of the coronavirus pandemic.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
University of Washington students walk through The Quad in September as the school year begins, much of it online because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

A dip in applications for financial aid tells a troubling story about which and how many Washington students are making plans to pursue — and get help paying for — education after high school.

Those early warning signs have alarmed Washington state’s college access and financial aid workers, sending them into overdrive. They’re doubling down on virtual information sessions, making sure students know there’s immediate help if they call by phone, and trying everything, anything to get high schools and colleges in on the action.

But virtual connection with school counselors isn’t the same, and some worry that the pandemic will shape who gets to attend college — a change that could jeopardize educational equity and colleges’ revenues for years to come.

“It’s scary. I’m nervous. I’m concerned,” said Guadalupe Torres, who leads Washington College Possible, a nonprofit that works to get south King County students to and through college. “These are warning signs. If we’re not working now, it’s only going to make this problem bigger.”

The college admissions cycle has months to go, and things could surely change during that time — especially if a vaccine enables school buildings to reopen. But as of late November, the evidence painted a concerning, if mixed, picture.

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Historically, Washington has ranked near the bottom compared to other states when it comes to students completing FAFSA, the universal federal form that is the portal to financial aid. Now, Washington’s relative standing is higher, but completions were down 14.66% from last year — and Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, said that observers should not be fooled because Washington has a history of getting many applications in early, then falling behind. Nationally, completions were down 15% as of Nov. 20.

Pledges to Washington’s College Bound Scholarship program, a college-going commitment middle school students can make in order to receive financial aid later, was down about 68% year over year at seventh grade as of the end of the fourth week of November.

But the Common App, an application form that 800 colleges nationwide use, shows signs in the other direction: Applications in Washington were up 12% overall. Despite a national decrease in this category, applications for first-generation students and those who needed the fee waived increased by 19%. Common App staffers and some local experts think that number is driven by the University of Washington early applications, which were due Nov. 15. 

These trends seem to gel with early college enrollment trends, which show that the UW sustained its enrollment, while many other Washington schools did not. And here and across the country, schools with higher concentrations of children living in poverty are seeing the impact of the application declines, said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for the National College Attainment Network

“It’s too early to make a lot out of this,” Meotti said. “But these are very clear warning signs.”

They come as students are physically removed from in-school milestones that signal it’s time to think about college: Counselors. College nights. Admissions tests. 

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The early data vexes state officials, who say that while Washington’s economy is usually replete with high-paying jobs, employers often import talent from out of state — boxing out Washingtonians who lack the proper credentials. 

“It’s the families that have been here … and there’s so much gentrification and so much push,” said Torres, who said she has set a goal of 75% FAFSA completion rate for the students her group helps. “How do we cultivate talent so that they don’t want to leave? … Look at our workforce. It is not reflective of this community.”

In Washington, lower-income students’ enrollment in four-year colleges has steadily climbed, from 14% in 2006 to 20% in 2018; that’s compared to their higher-income peers, whose rates grew from 35% to 43%. But still, in 2018, 53% of low-income students were not enrolled in any higher education at all, according to the state’s Education Research & Data Center.

This year, officials hoped more students would complete the FAFSA because more financial aid is guaranteed, no matter when they apply within the application window, which lasts through April. 

State Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge), who wrote the bill that guaranteed increased college aid, said he’s heard that many students are delaying college or apprenticeships. It’s now on the state, he said, to let people know that Washington will pick up public college tuition or apprenticeship fees if a student’s family income is $50,000 or less, through the Washington College Grant, which passed the state Legislature in 2019.

“What we really need is a big public awareness campaign,” he said. “That’s not an inexpensive proposition, and it’s not going to be the state’s top priority at a time when the state really needs to balance its budget and make sure that people can eat and keep a roof over their heads.”

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That disruption threatens to shake the conventions and patterns that have come to define education: that you start in kindergarten and stay in school straight through college, without a break.

“We really need to come to grips with the understanding that there will come a time, probably in three to four years max, when we will think COVID is a public health crisis in our rearview mirror, when we will start to forget about it, as we love to do,” Meotti said. 

“The agitation, the negative educational impacts of the time we’re in right now, will persist for many years,” he added. “It could be half a generation. It could be decades worth of students.”

His theory: The students who have more resources are inflating the state’s early FAFSA numbers. Washington, he said, tends to fall behind around Jan. 1. He hopes that the legislature will make enrollment in College Bound, the middle school pledge, automatic for all students who qualify; on Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation that will automatically sign up all eligible 7th and 8th graders this year.

People who work closely with students point to several reasons for the downturn.

Brianne Sanchez directs financial aid and veterans services at North Seattle College. She suspects the lack of in-person connection, coupled with Zoom fatigue after virtual school, is part of the problem. 

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“We always had low attendance to in-person workshops, and we have a lot of requests for one-on-one assistance,” said Sanchez. “It’s not the same providing that virtually.”

There’s a misconception that help can only be found online. Not true, she said — people in hers and other offices are just at the other end of a phone call, waiting to provide immediate help.

Another change: Financial aid applications require tax paperwork. If students were missing theirs, Sanchez would direct them to visit the IRS office in person and get it. Now, that’s not an option. 

Sanchez is less worried than others — she said the colleges usually get applications from first-generation students later in the season. For now, she’s trying to get students’ attention by changing things up: breakout rooms in digital workshops, advertising her program’s phone availability and more partnerships with academic advisers and high school counselors.

Across the region, of the 600 students who work with Torres’ organization, about 30-40% have said they’re either going to take a pass this year, or that they just didn’t know what they were going to do. Students are facing unprecedented chaos: A relative who lost a job, jeopardizing their college funds. Sharing Wi-Fi with two siblings and two parents working from home. A parent with COVID-19 who needs immediate care and resources. 

In the long run, Torres said of her FAFSA application push, “It’s about more than getting them into really good jobs. When you do that, our data shows that they’re going to invest in their children, that they’re going to be part of the community. My fear is that the pandemic is stifling that talent pipeline.”