This year, students may need extra help to make college a reality.
Because of the coronavirus crisis and sky-high unemployment rates, fewer than half of families feel confident in their ability to meet the costs of higher education, according to education lender Sallie Mae.
About 69% of parents and 55% of students entering college in the fall said Covid-19 has impacted their ability to pay for school, according to a separate poll of 6,500-plus high school seniors and their families by NitroCollege.com, a site that helps students and parents navigate college admissions and financial aid.
Already, nearly 40% of parents have tapped their child's college fund to help cover expenses due to economic fallout from the pandemic, according to another report by LendingTree.
Yet fewer families have applied for financial aid.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, serves as the gateway to all federal money, including loans, work-study and grants, which are the most desirable kind of assistance.
This year, the number of applications is down 2.8% from last year, with roughly 55,000 fewer high school seniors applying, according to the National College Attainment Network.
In ordinary years, high school graduates miss out on billions in federal grants because they don't fill out the FAFSA. Many families mistakenly assume they won't qualify for financial aid and don't even bother to apply.
Meanwhile, college costs are skyrocketing. Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $49,870 in the 2019-20 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $21,950, according to the College Board.
This spring, families will undoubtedly need those scholarships and grants more than ever.
If you have yet to file, "now is the time," said Ashley Boucher, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae.
A lot has changed since most students applied to college in the fall, and now "things might look a little different for a family," Boucher said.
Parents may find that suddenly they can't pay for college next year. In that case, they "should absolutely reach out to their desired school," she said.
For families who have already filed the FAFSA but have since experienced a financial shock, it is also possible to amend their FAFSA form or ask the college financial aid office for more aid, according to Boucher.
For example, if there are need-based issues beyond what was noted in the financial aid paperwork, such as increased health-related expenses or the loss of a job due to the pandemic, "contact your school's financial aid office and explain your situation," Boucher said.
Colleges are likely receptive to appeals, she added — particularly now.
With an increasing number of incoming freshmen reconsidering their options for the fall, some colleges and universities are desperate to hit their enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 academic year.
"Schools are competing for students, and students have more leverage than ever," Boucher said.