Jill Halley: Colleges, students looking ahead
2020 was one of the most difficult years the college community has ever faced. For the second straight year, there was a decline in students applying for and attending college. About 400,000 less students attended college than the previous year. This resulted in cutbacks to programs and staff. The once untouchable tenured staff saw reductions in their salary for the first time in many years.
Currently, colleges are deciding what they will do about Spring Break, when students will be leaving and returning with possible COVID-19 exposures. Nevada Union grad Aidan Reedy-Schneider, an engineering major at the University of California San Diego, described an innovative way COVID tests are made available to students. UCSD has vending machines that dispense free self- administered tests. This is part of their “return to learn” program mandating that students who live on campus must be tested weekly.
But let’s look ahead to the new year with some positive developments. In the just recently passed (December) Coronavirus Relief package, Congress made it a lot easier to apply for financial aid when they voted to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and a leader in simplifying the form, said they may cut the questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 36. This is in addition to changes made a few years ago that allowed using past tax returns and pairing the application with the IRS. The simplified FAFSA will be available on Oct.1, 2022.
This simplification is good news, as less than 60% of families in the U.S. file the FAFSA, many believing they won’t qualify or get discouraged with complicated questions.
Increases in Pell Grants for low income students is also in the bill and may allow 500,000 additional students to become eligible to receive the grant.
Community colleges had declining enrollment last year as well, but may be feeling optimistic with the new president-elect taking office. The new first lady is a community college professor and advocate. President-elect Biden has proposed making community college free for everyone in the future. Biden has also picked a strong public education advocate, Miguel Cardona, as his education secretary.
And for students who loathe taking college admissions tests, 2021 may be a good year for you. As we look to next application cycle, the future of college admissions tests hangs in limbo. It was a rough year for the SAT and the ACT as many tests were canceled and colleges went mostly test optional. A few colleges, like the huge University of California system, have dropped the current test taking requirement altogether. It remains to be seen if colleges will continue with the test optional policy, but many in the college field predict that the days of requiring college admission tests are a thing of the past.
There are reasons to be hopeful as campuses once again will be able to offer in-person instruction, financial aid will be easier to apply for and low-income grants will increase for students. These changes can’t come soon enough for me.
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