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College is unaffordable for many Florida students, but available financial aid is going unused

Century Tower on the UF campus
Houston Wells
Fresh Take Florida
Students across Florida aren't taking advantage of funding that could help them pay for college.

Undergraduate enrollment continues to drop, and the college landscape has changed drastically since the pandemic.

A lot has changed about secondary education since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Classes stopped and started, many colleges shifted to online courses, loan repayment paused and some schools shuttered altogether.

Now, huge changes are on the cusp for the nation’s colleges and universities.

The conversation about college funding in Washington D.C. has been hard to follow with its constant changes. What’s more important, decisions — those in the Build Back Better Act and otherwise — will actually impact current and prospective students.

And the makeup of the country’s college system is changing too. For the second year in a row, undergraduate enrollment is down at the nations’ colleges and universities, including in Florida.

Study shows how far college enrollment has fallen

A recent study released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that so far this fall, undergraduate enrollment is down in Florida by 2.6% since last year. That compares with a 3.2% drop in undergraduate enrollment nationally.

The study, which used data representing 8.4 million undergrad and graduate students from about half of the nation’s colleges, found that there are currently 240,000 fewer undergraduate students enrolled this fall than in fall 2020, according to NPR.

Florida’s numbers are on track with what the rest of the country’s institutions are experiencing, said Martha Parham, senior vice president for public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Enrollment falls
Enrollment has plummeted over the past year at two- and four-year colleges across the country.

While enrollment has been trending downward since high enrollment during the 2008 recession, it has shot down during the pandemic, according to NPR. Enrollment typically rises during economically hard times, and peters back down as the economy improves, she said.

But this downturn is different.

Universities and colleges still are experiencing low numbers as the pandemic continues. Young people and service industry workers put out of work during lockdown didn’t flock to secondary education.

This is concerning news, Parham explained.

“Seeing those enrollment numbers dropped means that we're looking at a number of Americans that are no longer on the on-ramp to the middle class, which is concerning,” she said.

Americans need more opportunities for advanced education and to build skills that help them enter the workforce, Parham said. And in turn, the nation needs a skilled workforce to remain competitive in the global workforce.

A drop in enrollment is problematic for other reasons as well, she said. Many public colleges receive funding based on their student population of students — less enrolled students means less allocated funding.

“So the problem does not cease to exist when COVID ceases to exist, it’s going to be a couple of years before we can right the ship,” Parham said.

Two-year colleges in particular are having even more trouble retaining and enrolling students, Parham added.

Community college students might find it harder to come back. The shift to online and hybrid classes during the pandemic has made completing school harder for the average community college student who is likely older, working or a parent. Some may not want to take courses online.

Parham said these students may not have the emotional or physical bandwidth to deal with “working and parenting and doing everything online.”

“We used to be able to say that during times of economic downturn, community college enrollments would trend upward with people trying to re-skill, people re-thinking their work lives and retraining and maybe taking time during a bad economy to go back to school,” she said. “And certainly with the pandemic, that has not been the case."

Universities and community colleges in particular, Parham said, have done a great job focusing on the needs of the students who have stayed. Going forward, these institutions will need to continue to provide students with the resources and support they need to finish their degrees — including childcare, transportation, broadband internet access and help for other issues that impede their ability to stay in school.

“So really, students I think are choosing how they want to receive their education going forward,” Parham said.

Changes are urged for Pell Grants

Substantial changes are also likely coming to the college funding system itself. President Joe Biden announced recently the proposed “Build Back Better” Act will increase the funding of the Pell Grant program by up to $550 per student.

Right now Pell Grants are not covering as much of the cost of tuition as they did in the 1980s, said Victoria Jackson, the assistant director of higher education policy at Ed Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization. The proposed legislation would bring the tuition aid closer to where it was in the 1980s, she added.

But, she said, more needs to be done.

Pell Grant changes
Congress is currently considering increasing the size of Pell Grants for students with the most extreme financial needs.

“By doubling the program, we could get back to that,” she said. “It will make sure that college is much more affordable, students work less to get their degrees, to afford them, and that we're able to reduce the debt burdens that people are taking on,” Jackson said.

A larger increase in Pell Grant funding would make it more affordable to attend college, Jackson said. Past increases in funding have “correlated to persistence in college and better outcomes.”

“Increases in the Pell Grant are critical for it to keep pace with inflation, and really help low-income students,” she said.

Jackson said that after the 2008 recession, states "dramatically cut funding for public colleges and universities.”

In Florida, spending on higher education at two- and four-year public universities only increased by $75 per student, after adjusting for inflation, from 2008 to 2019, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Without an increase in state funding, Jackson said, Florida's tuition prices have continued to rise. During the same period, the cost of attending a two-year college increased by $811, and the cost of attending a four-year-university increased by $1,765.

“And so when we think about that time period, wage growth hasn't kept up for the average students to really be able to afford an additional, a third of an increase in the cost of tuition over that time period,” she said.

In Florida, as of 2018, students at four-year public colleges had to work at least 23 hours a week at the minimum wage to cover what they needed for the cost of tuition and living expenses after grants and other aid, she said. However, the state’s minimum wage increased to $10 an hour earlier this year and will rise to $15 by 2026.

“And so increasing the Pell Grant can reduce those hours that students are working and reduce the time that they're spent away from their studies, away from their academics,” Jackson said. “And it's shown that actually when you reduce those hours, people, students have better outcomes.”

Right now, college is unaffordable for many students — especially for low- and middle-income students, Jackson added. Some students will try to go and realize they can’t afford it. Others don’t even consider going due to the cost. And some start and never finish, as they have to work too many hours.

"When we look at unaffordability, it really creates a barrier to access,” Jackson said.

FAFSA money is going unused

However, Florida’s students are leaving a substantial amount of scholarship and grant money on the table, said Charleita Richardson, executive director of the Florida College Access Network, an advocacy group.

Many high school students do not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps students get the financial aid they need to attend college, she said. The FAFSA determines what kind of aid students are eligible for — including Pell Grants, work-study jobs and certain loans.

FAFSA and financial aid
Florida students aren't taking advantage of scholarship and grant money.

"The FAFSA is really the biggest indicator of whether or not students are actually going to enroll in post-secondary education,” Richardson said. “So it all boils down to that and then it unlocks the funding that they need."

Just over 53% of Florida's class of 2021 completed the FAFSA, leaving more than $200 million in federal aid unused, according to the Florida College Access Network. But the state has the fourth highest amount of eligible students in the country.

As of Oct. 22, 287 of the state's K through 12 schools were behind where they were at this time last year on FAFSA completion, she added.

"We're hoping that that trend will begin to reverse itself,” Richardson said. “Because if it doesn't, it does further impact ultimately the enrollment data for our colleges and universities."

Florida has some of the best college tuition rates across the country, she said. But part of making sure students can attend universities is letting them know what aid is available to them.

Low FAFSA completion could have a negative impact on the state's enrollment at public universities, Richardson added. Richardson said FCAN is advocating for mandatory FAFSA completion with the necessary support and an opt out for families, she said.

“If you’re not getting the necessary aid that you need," Richardson said, "that impacts how much you’re actually going to move forward sometimes.”

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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