Student aid applications down big at SOU

Joe Zavala, Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
·6 min read

Mar. 16—Kristen Duncan has a message for those who have yet to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form because they doubt they'll receive any aid beyond loans or are just intimidated by the paperwork: that may be a costly assumption, and completing the FAFSA application is surprisingly easy.

Southern Oregon University's financial aid director is doing her best to spread the word about the importance of FAFSA and the Oregon State Aid Application (ORSAA) because SOU, like the rest of the state, has seen a steep decline in the number of applications, a development which could cost students thousands of dollars in potential financial aid.

Duncan said Oregon has seen a 10% decline in FAFSA applications, and the drop-off is even steeper locally. SOU students submit 7,000 to 8,000 FAFSA applications in a typical academic year, Duncan said, but so far this year that number is barely breaking 5,000.

"This has been the worst FAFSA year for me," Duncan said. "I've been in financial aid for 15 years. This has been the biggest FAFSA decline that I've seen ever, and this has been the biggest one that I've seen at SOU."

Duncan believes that in any normal year, she would pin most of the blame on a few factors that could potentially be rectified with a "fresh approach" by the government program. For one, she says, the FAFSA algorithms that help determine who should receive need-based aid and who doesn't are outdated. Secondly, many students believe, based on false assumptions, that they'll only be offered loans that they won't want to accept anyway. Also, the program simply isn't publicized all that well, so families aren't aware how great an impact it can make in their lives.

But while those issues are certainly contributing factors, Duncan said COVID-19's impact on higher education cannot be denied, even when it comes to financial aid.

"Now that we're in a pandemic, I feel the reason that the FAFSAs are down significantly is because one, students have just decided to take a gap year or not come to college this year because remote learning is very difficult and challenging for students that aren't choosing that path in the beginning," she said. "And secondly, incomes are all over the place, the FAFSAs are just wrong, and for students, now they have to do what's called a professional judgment if their incomes have changed or if there's been a job loss. That requires a lot of documentation from the student and the student's parents, so that becomes another barrier there."

According to finaid.org, professional judgment refers to the authority of a school's financial aid administrator to make adjustments to the data elements on the FAFSA and to override a student's dependency status. It can get very complicated, and that was well before the coronavirus took a big bite out of college enrollment. SOU's 2020-21 freshman cohort was 17% smaller than the previous academic year.

In a way, Duncan said, the pandemic has delivered a double whammy when it comes to FAFSA applications, because besides the enrollment drop, the school's financial aid wellness checks, promotional events held throughout campus during the school year, have become another COVID casualty.

"During the lunchtime hours ... we will show up with our laptops and we'll just ask every student, 'Hey, do you have a FAFSA on file, do you want to check your financial aid?' And then students are like, 'Oh, I was going to do that,' or, 'Oh, I have some questions.' And then that's usually how we can get the people who haven't done their FAFSA to get it done. ... But since we've been remote we can't capture just random students, so therefore those that don't ask get missed."

Those intimidated by the paperwork, have no fear, says Duncan. The process has been streamlined and most people with a smartphone and a working thumb can complete the whole application during their lunch break.

"It only takes 23 minutes to fill out a FAFSA and it's available to do on your smartphone now," she said, "and all the information is pre-populated, so they have made it very easy just to renew or do your FAFSA."

Duncan said it's well worth the effort for reasons that many families may not fully grasp.

"Parents will say, 'I make too much money, I don't want you to take out a loan and that's all they're going to offer you,' when in reality the FAFSA paints a better picture of a student's financial wellness than not doing it at all," she said. "So even if you are just going to get a loan, you still paint a picture to the financial aid office — hey this student still has a need and this is what we can do for them. If you provide nothing, I have nothing to look at."

Duncan points to middle-income families, known in financial aid circles as "the murky middle." Typically, they may only be eligible for loans, but institutions will use their institutional funds — at SOU, this is known as Raider Aid — to supplement where there are gaps.

"So with that FAFSA they'll say, 'Your (expected family contribution) is above the ... needs-based range, let us help you in other ways,'" she explained. "And financial aid at SOU actually has free money that is dedicated to students who are above the needs-based grant level. So it is important that you fill out that FAFSA because you could still receive free money, just a different form."

The ORSAA application is for students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or are undocumented. Filling it out makes those students eligible for the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

"If you fill out the ORSAA," Duncan said, "nine times out of 10 you'll get approved for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which is $3,612 for the year."

Duncan also stressed that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to financial aid, so students should apply as soon as possible once the application floodgates open each year at midnight Oct. 1. Applications must be filled out each year by June 30 to be considered for the previous year.

For more information, visit the student services building on the SOU campus or email studentservices.sou.edu.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.