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Study looks at college financial aid applications, sees drop from majority Black schools

The gap between public high schoolers in majority Black senior classes  who fill out a form for college financial aid for the State of Michigan and those seniors who are not in majority Black classes jumped this spring, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) found that 42.6% of students in majority Black senior classes applied for the Michigan Tuition Incentive Program this spring, a drop from a year earlier, compared with 51.6% of students ihere Black seniors are not a majority. That 9% gap is an increase of 8.2% from the previous year.

TIP funds, which come from the state, are applied to college costs before federal aid, such as a Pell Grant. On average, students attending community college (Phase I) received about $3,377 for the TIP program. The researchers saw a similar gap when looking at students who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in the same group of students, but that gap didn’t grow much from last year.

In schools where 50% or more of the senior class is Black, 40.2% of seniors filled out the FAFSA form, compared with 53.5% in non-majority Black senior class high schools, an increase of 1.1% from last year.

Combining the TIP program and a Pell Grant, which is worth $6,345, is enough to cover tuition at community colleges in the state.

The FAFSA is notorious for being hard to complete, especially for those who haven't gone to college and have never filled it out. Part of the gaps, U-M professor Kevin Stange speculated, might come from students not being in school this spring and not being able to get help from counselors and other organizations in getting the forms filled out.

The report calls for the whole process to be simplified in order to help more students get aid.

"If the program were easier to access, Michigan would be a national leader in free community college statewide," said Catherine Brown of TICAS. "But the application process serves mainly to keep students out of the program. The Michigan Competitive Scholarship and the Michigan Tuition Grant are both accessed by filling out the FAFSA. TIP has the most onerous application process and the shortest eligibility window of any of the state scholarship programs.

"Last month, leaders from both parties demonstrated their support for financial aid, and came together to protect access to TIP during the pandemic," Brown said. "The data from this brief demonstrates how important it will be for policy makers to take additional steps to help protect and strengthen financial aid so that Michigan can weather the economic disruption of this year, and remain prosperous over the long term."

Researchers undertook the study to see if they could predict the economic impact of the pandemic, particularly on students needing financial aid to go to school.

The answer? There's still no good idea of how many students are planning to go to college as fall classes start. If applications were down, that could be an indication students weren't coming back to school, because you don't need aid to pay for school you aren't attending. If applications were up, that could be an indicator more students were planning to attend, or that the resulting economic slump from the pandemic had more families unable to pay for school.

But researchers found a mixed bag, or a glass half-full, half-empty situation.

“The increased financial need of students due to the pandemic has not resulted in increased financial aid applications. Although rates remain similar to last year, overall FAFSA and TIP completion rates remain low, both close to 50%,” the report found.

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