College Now and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District provide help to students during the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process. (Kevin Kopanski)

Out of all of the benchmarks marking a college application season for high school seniors, like taking a college entrance exam or touring a prospective campus, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to potentially earn state or federal funding to attend a higher education institution can be one of the biggest boxes to check.

But even amid the economic blow dealt by the coronavirus pandemic, completion rates of high school seniors are down 16% nationwide and 21% in Ohio compared with figures from late October 2019, according to the most recent data from the National College Attainment Network.

The drop comes as enrollment at colleges and universities nationwide and in the region have taken a hit this year, especially for Black students and first-time students. FAFSA completions could be one indicator to look at to see if that decline could continue.

“I would think that college presidents, in general, would be very scared about what potential enrollment next fall may look like,” said MorraLee Keller, a past president of NCAN and the group’s current director of technical assistance.

Barriers to bumping up completion rates existed nationwide prior to the pandemic. The nonprofit Education Northwest found that students and their families may be put off by the complexity of the FAFSA form and the filing process. And in a survey released in 2018 of a group of young people who didn’t submit the application, 23% said they felt like they didn’t have enough information about it.

In Northeast Ohio, NCAN’s numbers show the decline in returns at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is worse than the state and national rates, clocking in at about a 50% drop compared with the like period in 2019.

CMSD’s Anthony Battaglia pushed back at that national data, though, saying internal tracking shows the completion gap year-to-year for the class of 2021 is far smaller than the national rate indicates.

“The FAFSA is paramount to all of our financial aid process,” said Battaglia, the district’s career and college readiness director.

He said a priority has been stressing to families that just because they may have unique circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re immediately excluded from any funding the form could provide to a college-bound student.

“We’ve had a lot of success with the students doing their part, where the roadblock is just parents doing theirs, and then helping inform the community that just because you provide your information doesn’t mean you’re financially liable,” he said.

CMSD and local nonprofit College Now Greater Cleveland began plotting out what their FAFSA completion events would look like beginning in January. Those plans, of course, shifted online in light of the pandemic.

“The only difference is, when you’re in person, if you see a student walking down the hallway, you can say, ‘I haven’t seen you, come into my office,’ ” said Kate Schwab, senior director of advising programs and services at College Now. “That would probably be about the only difference in terms of outreach. Otherwise, we have done everything that we had set out to do.”

That outreach centers on hosting both specific building and districtwide completion nights. These virtual offerings include providing general information as well as opportunities for students and families to break out into pre-scheduled appointments with staff members.

“If everyone has the paperwork they need and all the pieces they need to complete the FAFSA, we’re fully prepared to finish it that night,” she said. “And we’ve been successful with doing that.”

Officials say the pandemic has made attendance easier, in part, because families don’t have to worry about arranging transportation to attend an event. They mentioned the digital divide has been lessened thanks to the district’s efforts to supply devices, but technology fluency can be a challenge. Families also can make an in-person appointment with College Now if they need to receive more hands-on help.

And though the FAFSA is released on Oct. 1 for the following academic year, CMSD points out they’ve traditionally been a late-filing district. Students are encouraged to submit the form close to that date because some aid is awarded on a first-come, first served basis.

Across the state, NCAN reports just 17% of Ohio seniors have submitted their FAFSA as of Oct. 30.

Districts where Black and Hispanic students make up 40% or more of the population have lower completion rates so far this year. High schools in a city setting are seeing the biggest drop compared to their counterparts in towns, suburbs or rural areas.

“There are tens of millions of dollars that are left on the table in financial aid that could be utilized by students in Ohio to allow them to pursue their higher education goals,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education chancellor Randy Gardner.

Gardner applauded the longtime efforts of retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. The Republican from Tennessee has long advocated for simplifying the application. Completion rates in Alexander’s state clock in near 80%, and it’s mandatory to complete to earn a state scholarship known as the Tennessee Promise. Submitting a FAFSA is required to graduate in Louisiana, though a student can opt out.

Socially distant completion events hosted by groups similar to College Now have popped up nationwide this fall, too. An organization in Kansas offered help from a tent pitched outside a high school, while outreach programs curated tips on how to successfully host a drive-in event complete with counselors and connectivity.

Here in Ohio, the department of higher education launched its “3 to Get Ready” campaign two years ago. It encourages high schools and higher ed institutions to offer help for FAFSA completion, calls for supporting students throughout their application process and encourages them to submit at least one application, and suggests celebrating post-secondary plans with a signing day in the spring.

“It is of concern that we have lower FAFSA completion rates across the board in the country,” Gardner said. “And we need to impress upon our community leaders, our schools, and our parents and students that higher education is still an important value. So that’s our mission.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.