Efforts to increase the number of high school students in Hawaii who apply for financial aid for college have been significantly hampered by the pandemic as schools and advocacy groups struggle to reach families virtually and some students feel mounting pressure to get a job after graduation. 

Educators want more students to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, because it not only opens the door to grants and scholarships for students already planning to go to college, but can also be an entry point for students who may not have seriously been considering a post-secondary education. 

“It actually changes a mindset,” said Gus Cobb-Adams, a college application specialist at Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. “The FAFSA and financial aid planning opens the doors to what can be possible.”

University of Hawaii at Manoa students walk toward the Campus Center on the first day of instruction during a surge in Covid-19 cases throughout the state of Hawaii. August 23, 2021
University of Hawaii requires a FAFSA for a number of scholarships, including merit scholarships for Hawaii residents that are based on high school grades, not financial need. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Before Covid-19, the state Department of Education set an ambitious goal of getting 90% of Hawaii’s high school seniors to fill out the FAFSA in 2020. 

This year, roughly half of seniors in public schools filled out the form, almost exactly the same as last year. Having rates stay the same or go up a little actually represents a big success, given the challenges of reaching families in the last year, said Cobb-Adams, who helps lead weekly virtual workshops on the FAFSA for students and families across the state. 

“The challenges to FAFSA completion, the challenges to student engagement, to getting parents in the same place as their student, have been astronomical this year,” Cobb-Adams said.

Students cannot fill out the FAFSA without assistance from their parents or guardians, who have to provide financial information and sign the form.

Before the pandemic, the Pacific Financial Aid Association sponsored a statewide FAFSA day when some school sites would host hundreds of families in a single day. Hawaii P-20 also made regular visits to high school cafeterias to encourage students to fill out the application and provide in-person help.

Most of that work has been virtual for the last two years, and families have not responded to online outreach at the same rates, Cobb-Adams said. Hawaii P-20 only reached 361 families with virtual workshops in the last year, despite offering them twice a week between October and May.

The virtual workshops have been a boon for some schools on neighbor islands, including Baldwin High School on Maui. Completion rates at Baldwin jumped 11% this year, a change that the school’s college counselor says was spurred in part by the increased virtual offerings.

Next year, Hawaii P-20 plans to do a mix of events to try to merge the best of both worlds, as more in-person programming becomes possible.

The FAFSA completion numbers also highlight stark geographic differences in college-going expectations in Hawaii. At Waianae High School, fewer than a third of students filled out an application for college aid. At Kalani High School in East Honolulu, more than 70% of students did so. 

Counselors at Kalani said they stocked their offices with lots of snacks to entice students to visit, called families individually to remind them to participate, and tried to get students to encourage their peers to fill out the application. But ultimately they said the school’s FAFSA completion rate — the highest in the state — has less to do with school-specific strategies and more with a college-going culture at the school. Less than 20% of students at Kalani are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and most are expected by their families to go to college.

At Waianae High School — which had the lowest FAFSA participation rate in the state — two-thirds of students come from low-income families.

College enrollment has declined across Hawaii and nationally during the pandemic, but the reasons for that are likely varied.

At Kalani High School, counselors are hearing from a growing number of students who say they plan to take a gap year for their mental health before enrolling in college. Other students want to see more of the world after spending the bulk of their high school years grappling with lockdowns, virtual learning and other stressors of the pandemic.

In other communities, a hot labor market, along with financial pressures on families from the pandemic and inflation, is playing a role.

“We’re seeing families prioritize short term jobs as opposed to college,” Cobb-Adams said, “which is really unfortunate because we know the key to having students rise out of their socio-economic levels is through education.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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