New federal applications for college aid this year have dropped 17% from 2019 — sparking fears that COVID-19 concerns could drive high school seniors to postpone college or skip it altogether.

The decline, according to an analysis of Department of Education data, builds on a 13% drop in freshman college enrollments this fall, as colleges switched to pandemic-prompted remote learning — and threatens economic harm to the American secondary education system that could linger for years.

Only 24% of students eligible to submit submissions the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, for the first time — that is, next year’s college freshmen — have done so, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Last year at this time, 29% of high school seniors had submitted the paperwork that opens federal, state, and other grants and loans to college students.

The decline is even more severe at schools that serve rural, low-income, and minority students, the National College Attainment Network found.

College searches and applications “are luxuries for a lot of families right now,” said Bill DeBaun, the nonprofit’s director of data and evaluation, as coronavirus restrictions cut into parental incomes and isolated students grapple with on-line classes.

A national survey of potential college students this week found that 36% of high schoolers say they are less likely to pursue higher education than they were before the pandemic hit, Insider Higher Ed reported Thursday.

High school guidance counselors, who would ordinarily be meeting with their charges in person to organize college applications and assist with financial aid questions this time of year, find themselves scrambling to motivate students through a computer screen.

“If a student doesn’t want to answer a call or show up for a Zoom class, they just don’t have to,” Jeremy Raff of the Lancaster, Pa., school district told the Wall Street Journal. “It is so easy to disengage.”

And kids themselves are hearing from peers that remote learning at the college level is no more satisfying than it is in high school.

“My friends who went away to college didn’t like it,” said Kaylin Francoeur, a freshman at a Massachusetts community college who enrolled there because of the pandemic’s uncertainty.

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