News: Financial Aid

FAFSA Completions Tumble Nationally Over Coronavirus

Monday, March 30, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker is updated with data from Federal Student Aid on FAFSA completions through March 20. The data show that not even FAFSA completion is being spared from the coronavirus’s upheaval and havoc.

From March 13 to March 20, completions nationally took a dive compared to last year’s cycle. On March 13, FAFSA completions nationally were up 0.2% (about 3,000 completions) compared to last academic year through the same date. A week later, FAFSA completions were down 0.5% (about 9,600 completions). This 0.7 percentage-point drop is the second largest after Jan. 1 since the FAFSA Tracker began monitoring weekly FAFSA completions during the 2018-19 FAFSA cycle.

Every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico saw their year-over-year FAFSA completions decrease between March 13 and March 20. Effectively this means states that were ahead of last year on March 13 either slowed down or are now behind. Meanwhile, states that were behind last cycle as of March 13 are now even further behind in terms of FAFSA completions.

Obviously, upheaval in students' and families' lives contributes to this, but we also know school counselors and college access advisers often interact with students during/after school. School closures make that much more difficult, as NCAN members nationwide are finding.

Education Week has been tracking the dates of statewide school closures. 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico all closed their schools during the week of March 16. Another four closed on March 23, and three (Iowa, Maine, and Nebraska) have school closures that vary by district. Regardless of a state's school closure date, NCAN’s analysis of the FAFSA completion data showed that year-over-year FAFSA completions declined from between 0.5 and 0.9 percentage points.

All of this is alarming to NCAN, its members, and student advocates across the country. FAFSA is strongly associated with immediate postsecondary enrollment, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. During last year's cycle, about 62% of the high school class of 2019 completed a FAFSA by late August. Projecting that onto this cycle, which currently has an estimated 49.2% of seniors with a FAFSA completion, shows that nearly 450,000 seniors should still complete a FAFSA. (NCAN certainly will not mind if that figure goes higher!) Many of those 450,000 seniors, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, are going to need guidance and encouragement to complete a FAFSA.

In an article last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover reported on a national survey of prospective college students (N=487) that showed 1 in 6 students intending to enroll at a four-year institution may now choose a different path, and 60% of respondents said they may have to reconsider their first choice. Coronavirus certainly has implications for all kinds of postsecondary outcomes beyond FAFSA completion, especially enrollment. But as CampusLogic’s Carlo Salerno put it on Twitter, “FAFSA completion is a legit canary in the coal mine for higher education … and that bird is sick and getting sicker.”

NCAN is working hard to flag and coordinate resources for our members and the field so we can continue to support students. For FAFSA specifically, be sure to visit FormYourFuture.org. Additionally, NCAN has been collecting and collating resources specifically aimed at helping programs assist students through this difficult time. NCAN will return next week with additional FAFSA completion data.

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