More students, likely with a healthy dose of help from their parents, are applying for federal college financial aid as part of a national rebound after the program saw big drops during the pandemic.

But in Washington, a vexing problem remains: Families here apply at lower rates than people in most other states, and have for years. Even the recovery is smaller than the national average, and it’s being unevenly felt across districts. 

This data shows some districts, including several in the Puget Sound area, are seeing an increase in the number of forms filed, but officials and experts say seeking federal aid is just one part of the college-going puzzle that’s only gotten more challenging since COVID-19 hit in 2020.

This year, roughly 52% of the country’s high school class of 2022 has completed a FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to the National College Attainment Network. That’s an increase of about 4.5% compared to the class of 2021, which makes up for some of the losses attributed to COVID-19. 

“The class of 2021 was down about 4.8% year over year, and for the class of 2020 it was down about 3.7% year over year,” said Bill DeBaum, the network’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives. “We saw a strong bounceback from low-income and minority high schools … that’s very encouraging.”

In Washington, just under 47% of students from the class of 2022 have completed the form – 5 percentage points below the national figure – according to data from the Washington Student Achievement Council. Still, that’s a 3% boost compared to last year, which had the lowest filing rates since 2016.

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The data is tracked in slightly different ways. Washington’s data comes straight from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and only includes public schools. The national figures use enrollment estimates, said Sarah Weiss, the achievement council’s director of college initiatives.  

The statewide rate also doesn’t show what’s happening in different communities. Filing rates vary widely, with Seattle Public Schools reporting that 72% of its 2022 class filed a FAFSA.

This puts Seattle Public Schools among the top 10 filing rates across the state, but other districts have a much harder time, including the Edmonds and Highline School Districts where the completion rates are just above 46%, and 49% respectively.

DeBaum points out that low filing rates seem to be a regional trend focused on the West – with states like Arizona, Oregon and Colorado ranking among the bottom 10 states for FAFSA completions alongside Washington, which ranked 48th in the nation.

“That’s always been somewhat surprising to me,” DeBaum said.

The FAFSA gives students access to several different types of federal aid, including Pell Grants, as well as other private or local scholarships – it’s commonly included as required paperwork for most college financial assistance programs. 

Mike Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, said there are a number of factors that could contribute to Washington’s low FAFSA ranking. For some, he said, college isn’t viewed as an essential stepping stone to a decent-paying job or something attainable for them – Washington as a state sends fewer high school graduates to college than the national average, too. 

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“For most high school students, your college-going vision or plans is based on the environment you’re living in,” he said. “If I have no plan to go to college, why are we even talking about paying for something that isn’t relevant to my life?”

The form is also one part of the equation, he said. Even for students interested in college, there’s no state requirement for students to fill out the FAFSA to receive state grants, especially for those who qualify for other federally supported low-income programs. Whether or not students who receive those state dollars fill out the FAFSA is up to the school they want to attend. 

Christian Granlund, a manager with the Puget Sound College and Career Network, said part of what’s behind Seattle schools’ high FAFSA numbers is likely Seattle Promise, a free tuition program for high school students who want to attend college. He said it helps that urban areas have community organizations and resources to support students with navigating college and financial aid questions, while more rural and suburban areas are often left to tackle the challenge on their own. 

But Granlund points out that financial challenges are one hurdle among many on the path to college. One key problem for students, he said, is the lack of one-on-one advising even if the financial support is there – especially for students whose parents didn’t go to college. 

“Just that financial piece of it is not a guarantee of enrollment or success and persistence and completion of a degree,” he said. 

So as FAFSA numbers slowly start to resemble pre-COVID-19 levels, Meotti and others say it’s critical to connect and engage more students with college opportunities early on.