On Your Side Investigation: Fewer students applying for financial aid

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 4:35 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Educators call it an upsetting trend. Each year, fewer students are applying for financial student aid, leaving thousands of dollars unclaimed.

Down State Highway 125 in Christian County, past Kay’s Country Store, you will find Chadwick schools.

“You know everyone in the community and everyone knows you,” said Jaron Vanhouden.

Vanhouden recently graduated. He’s attending the University of Missouri.

“I just want to get used to the environment up there. It’s going to be a big change coming from a class of 15 to 30,000” he said.

Animal Science is in his future.

“I don’t have any student loans taken out right now,” he said.

Why? Because Vanhouden did what educators say not enough kids are doing. Filling out the FAFSA. That’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students find out if they’re eligible for grants, scholarships and/or loans. There is some paperwork. You’ll likely need parents income and tax info.

“I think sometimes they’re overwhelmed with the process of filling out the application,” said Misty Wilkerson, the counselor at Chadwick schools.

“College is not for everyone, but for the ones headed to college, we wanted to make as financially possible as we can,” she said.

Here’s the downward trend in Missouri. Before the pandemic, nearly 60% of high school seniors filled out the FAFSA. In 2020, 56%, in 2021 51%. Missouri is 34th in national filing rankings.

“This is something that colleges and universities are struggling with. We sense that maybe there’s some more hesitancy about going to college simply because of COVID and all the things that have happened the last year,” said Becky Ahrens, Director of Financial Aid at Drury University.

Drury University leaders say for many families, income info changed because of the pandemic. So 2019 tax info on a 2021 student aid application might not be accurate. Educators say students just need to talk with an advisor.

“Students don’t know what might be out there. You’re leaving money on the table by not filing the FAFSA,” said Ahrens.

Congress gave colleges a $36 billion pot of money to distribute in emergency financial grants to students hurt by the pandemic. That’s money they don’t have to pay back.

“We do know, around 80% of students who file their FAFSA get some form of financial aid,” said Jessica Duren with Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development.

Duren says there are more incentives now for students to just fill out the paperwork.

“It could be the difference between attending and not attending. That could be the small push that gets them there on campus that next semester,” she said.

The department has the Show-Me FAFSA Challenge. It’s a statewide drawing for schools that reached or exceeded more than 60 percent of seniors who filed. Chadwick won.

Vanhouden received the scholarship.

“I just got lucky enough that my name was selected as the student who received the thousand dollar scholarship. I’m super blessed and lucky to have that. I’m grateful for that,” he said.

It’s still not too late to file for college students. High school seniors can apply later this fall. There are events where you can get one-on-one help. Also, step-by-step videos.

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