Maine Arts Academy students board a bus Tuesday before leaving school following the first day back to class at the Sidney campus. The school is among a handful locally to report a decline in students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ahead of the May 1 Maine State Grant deadline. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Local school districts are making a final push for families to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications before the Maine State Grant deadline of May 1. Families can apply after May 1, but will not be eligible for the grant, which provides up to $1,500 in need-based aid.

FAFSA applications are needed to qualify for any federal aid including work-study, grants and loans.

Although a majority of school districts across the state are seeing a decline of completed FAFSA applications, Winslow High School is one of a few central Maine schools bucking the statewide and national trend with a higher percentage of its senior class completing applications this year than last.

“This is one of the best years that we’ve had in terms of completion for several years,” Winslow High School guidance counselor Tom McNeil said. “We may just be a weird anomaly. We have a smaller graduating class than we usually do. Right now, 75% of our seniors have filed the FAFSA,” up from 61.5% last year.

FAFSA applications are available in October, so the work schools do to get families to fill them out begins once a new school year starts. One of the challenges during the coronavirus pandemic that confronted guidance departments at schools was tracking down students, as many are only in the building every other day in a hybrid learning model. The application takes no more than 30 minutes to fill out.

Guidance counselors also note that students opt for jobs, military service or other opportunities outside of postsecondary education.

In central Maine, Winslow, Mount View and Upper Kennebec Valley high schools are seeing an increase in the percentage of graduating seniors completing a FAFSA application. Carrabec, Cony, Erskine Academy, Gardiner, Hall-Dale, Lawrence, Madison, Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, Maine Arts Academy, Messalonskee, Nokomis, Skowhegan and Waterville high schools are seeing decreases in the percentage of the senior class with a completed FAFSA, according to data from the Finance Authority of Maine.

The data reported runs through April 20, so some of the schools may meet or exceed last year’s numbers when full-cycle data that runs through May 1 becomes available.

Winslow High School is among the schools reporting an increase in the percentage of students filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Morning Sentinel file photo

Statewide, 50.9% of the 2021 class have completed the FAFSA, down from 57% last year and continuing a four-year trend of slight decreases. Maine ranks 22nd among the 50 states in completion rate, according to the National College Attainment Network. Nationally, 47.2% of high school seniors have completed a FAFSA.

“When we look at our data, which I think is the most accurate because it is based on actual seniors in the census reported Oct. 1, we’re down by just a tad under 5% compared to this time last year, so yes, that’s concerning,” FAME College Access and Outreach Manager Mila Tappan said. “We’re still hoping for a good strong surge here before May 1, and of course, people can still file after May 1st, but we want people to be automatically considered for the grant.”

Nationwide data compiled by loan giant Sallie Mae showed that only 63% of families submitted FAFSA applications for the 2020-21 academic year, compared to 71% for 2019-20. Data from Sallie Mae also discovered nearly one-third of families with a student going to college did not fill out the FAFSA, and 43% of those families believed they wouldn’t qualify for aid.

“Nationally, the numbers are lower, so it’s not special to just Maine,” Sallie Mae spokesperson Ashley Boucher said. “Nearly all who apply are going to qualify for something. There are a lot of factors that go into this formula regarding how much aid you’ll receive.”

Currently, only Louisiana and Illinois require graduating high school seniors to complete FAFSA applications. Texas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska and New Jersey are all considering bills to make FAFSA applications mandatory.

Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux wrote in an email that requiring the FAFSA “as a DOE initiative isn’t likely.” Tappan said it’s been discussed, but there’s nothing on the table officially.

“It is more complicated because students have to have the support to get (FAFSA) done,” Tappan said. “If that ever were to become a requirement, there’d still have to be an ability to opt out.”

Erskine Academy, a private school in South China, draws students from eight towns — Chelsea, China, Jefferson, Palermo, Somerville, Vassalboro, Whitefield and Windsor — which offer school choice and pay tuition. Families outside those towns can pay tuition to send students there. This year’s 60.9% FAFSA completion compares to 64% last year. When the full-cycle data is complete, the school could meet or exceed last year’s percentage. To a degree, students are uncertain about what their future may hold. Some Erskine Academy students wanted to see what college would do this fall for in-person education.

Erskine Academy in South China. To date, the school is seeing a slight decline in the percentage of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ahead of the May 1 Maine State Grant deadline. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Everything’s been a challenge this year, but being able to be in contact consistently with our students and parents has been a process,” Erskine Academy guidance counselor and careers department head Betsey Benner said. “Early on, we discovered our seniors had email fatigue. … Reaching them directly has been a challenge. We have tried as much as possible to operate on a normal year basis, but much of what we’ve had to do has been virtual.”

Skowhegan Area High School Assistant Principal Jason Bellerose said the school could not hold its traditional financial information nights and in-person FAFSA completion labs. They opted for emails and virtual labs along with in-person, small-group meetings.

“How we go about typically promoting the FAFSA is different, but we’ve continued working with our students in an effort to get them to fill it out,” Bellerose said.

At Regional School Unit 3’s Mount View High School in Thorndike, the school’s guidance and Jobs for Maine Graduates staffs are committed to getting students to fill out the FAFSA. Mount View has a JMG class for seniors attending post secondary schooling. In that class, instructor Hauns Bassett has a unit on FAFSA and its impact. JMG students create slides for the school’s internal TV station and reminders are posted around the school. Morning announcements at the school sometimes include FAFSA information. FAFSA completions have increased this year to 57.5% from 43.5%.

Mount View’s guidance department worked closely with FAME. The department gets a report on who files the FAFSA. Students and families are contacted on an individual basis.

“It’s been really great because now we don’t have to guess anymore,” Mount View guidance counselor Lynsie Doherty said. “What I noticed last year is when COVID hit, students changed their plans really abruptly. … This class has had a year to process what’s happening in the world, and I think they’re more comfortable with making the decision to go off to college.”

Some schools provide incentives for filling out the FAFSA. In Winslow and at Mount View, students who complete an application get their name submitted to a raffle for prizes. Using FAME tools, the district can see which students completed the FAFSA and can identify families to approach. The district also utilizes a grant-funded college and career access position. FAFSA, grants and loans are the subject of a junior year curriculum.

“I think it helps if you are able to embed these things in the student experience over the four years,” McNeil said. “It puts less pressure on trying to educate people all at one time.”

The biggest prize, though, may be what results from completing the FAFSA. The Maine State Grant is key.


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