RI students complete federal aid forms, although college plans uncertain

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If the number of high school students completing forms for financial assistance is a reliable indicator, Rhode Island is not seeing a decline in the numbers of graduating seniors looking to continue their educations – although because of the coronavirus, the college experience has changed dramatically and may be far from the old normal when classes resume in the fall.

Charles Kelley, executive director of the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority, which operates the College Planning Center, said last week that the state presently has the seventh-highest percentage of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Kelley discounts Tennessee, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., as they require graduates to complete the form. Massachusetts rates the highest in the country among states with voluntary completion of the FAFSA at 62.7 percent as of May 8. Rhode Island, with 7,327 of 11,877 graduating seniors having completed the form, is at 61.7 percent.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, applications dropped below year-ago levels in mid-March as the pandemic forced many schools to go to distance learning. The story referenced data from the nonprofit National College Attainment Network showing that applications nationwide had dropped 2.8 percent with 55,582 fewer students filing as of April 24.

FAFSA applications open the door to a student receiving a Pell grant as well as student loans and certain scholarships and institutional aid.

Could this mean that because of the pandemic and worsening financial conditions that students are reconsidering college as the next step in their careers?

Gerald Habershaw, principal at Pilgrim, wouldn’t be surprised if students are “holding off” decisions to commit to college to see if campus life might be anything like the brochures and videos portray. Distance learning is not what they’re bargaining for. “Are they going to pay the money and not live on campus?” Habershaw asks. “I think they’re waiting and seeing.”

Toll Gate Principal Candace Caluori hasn’t seen a decline in the number of students planning to continue their educations.

“I think they’re trying to be optimistic,” she said.

Caluori estimated 81 percent of the graduating class is looking to go on to some form of higher education, whether it is college, a trade school or the military. She believes a higher percentage of the class will choose to go to the Community College of Rhode Island, especially if the state continues to fund the RI Promise program initiated by Gov. Gina Raimondo providing a free year of education.

“More kids want to go to CCRI,” she said.

The College Planning Center has mounted a campaign offering students assistance in completing the FAFSA.

Kelley doesn’t imagine there will be a drop-off in the number of high school graduates looking to further their education. He noted that URI has already filled its upcoming class. Yet the Student Loan Authority has been prudent in projecting its needs.

Kelley said the institution recently issued a $100 million bond to provide student loans and for refinancing of student loans. He said RISLA had considered at $150 million bond, but scaled it back given the uncertainty of the times.

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