The #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker is updated with data on high school seniors’ FAFSA completions through April 3, and the news is grim nearly any way you cut it. The Tracker is populated with data from Federal Student Aid, and it is updated weekly throughout the FAFSA cycle to show information on completions by high school seniors at the national, state, city, district, and school levels.
One way NCAN tracks the nation’s progress on the FAFSA is to compare completions from the present cycle to those of the previous cycle (year-over-year). By this measure, FAFSA completions nationwide slowed down substantially for the third straight week, slipping another half percentage point behind last academic year. FAFSA completions of high school seniors in the class of 2020 have now dropped 2 percentage points (roughly 37,000 FAFSAs) since March 13, compared to the class of 2019. The year-over-year percent change stands at -1.8%, as of April 3.
Two weeks ago, NCAN reported a 0.7 percentage-point drop from March 13 to March 20 – the second-largest drop after Jan. 1 recorded in the past three years – to fall to -0.5% year-over-year. Since then, FAFSA completions dropped another 0.8 percentage points (about 14,000 completions) to -1.3% on March 27 and then another 0.5 percentage points (about 10,000 completions) to the current -1.8% on April 3.
Since March 13, the Friday before many states began statewide school closures or pivots to virtual learning, every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have fallen behind their FAFSA completions numbers from last academic year. Just six states (Nevada, California, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, and Kansas) still have more FAFSA completions this year than last, and North Dakota in 2020 is even compared to 2019.
The other measure NCAN uses to examine FAFSA completion is to estimate the percentage of the senior class that have completed a FAFSA. NCAN estimates 50% of seniors in the class of 2020 have completed a FAFSA through April 3. Despite the slowdown, by this measure the class of 2020 is keeping pace; the class of 2019 hit 50% completions on April 5 of last year.
NCAN’s analysis shows that Title I eligible public high schools’ FAFSA completions are being hit particularly hard. On April 3, these schools’ FAFSA completions were 2.6 percentage points behind their totals from the same date last year, compared to -1.5 percentage points for high schools that are not Title I eligible. Title I schools predominantly serve students from low-income backgrounds, who are also the students most likely to receive federal student aid as a result of completing the FAFSA.
NCAN’s previous analyses demonstrate that students from districts with more concentrated poverty tend to complete the FAFSA at lower rates than their more affluent peers.
Those searching for silver linings in these data will have to look hard but can ultimately find two thin examples. First, the rate of decline in FAFSA completions on April 3 slowed down compared to March 27 (from -0.8% to -0.5%). It would be encouraging for this trend to level out in subsequent weeks, otherwise there is a very real possibility that the declines will snowball as the cycle goes on.
Additionally, Washington state’s FAFSA completions year-over-year for the week ending April 3 were up 0.1% compared to the previous year, which demonstrates that states can still keep completions going.
NCAN continues to monitor FAFSA completions closely and will publish updated data weekly on the FAFSA Tracker as they become available. Those with questions about FAFSA completions nationally or in their state can reach out to Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation, at firstname.lastname@example.org.