News: Financial Aid

New Data: Nearly 250,000 Fewer Low-Income FAFSA Renewals This Cycle Nationally

Wednesday, May 6, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Nearly 250,000 fewer returning students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed their FAFSA for the 2020-21 cycle, and FAFSA renewals overall are down nearly 5% (more than 350,000 students) compared to last year.

These findings come from NCAN’s analysis of Federal Student Aid (FSA) data showing FAFSA completions from returning applicants between the start of this FAFSA cycle in October and mid-April of this year.

This cycle’s declines in FAFSA renewals have more than doubled since Feb. 29 when total completions were 2.3% fewer than on the same date last year. Six weeks and one pandemic later, through April 15, there were 4.7% fewer FAFSA completions this cycle than last.

NCAN created a new dashboard to visualize these FAFSA renewal data, and we will continue to develop and expand this resource.

The downward trend in renewals is deeply troubling and potentially points to students’ uncertainty about how, or whether, to continue on their postsecondary pathways in the fall as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across nearly every industry.

“FAFSA completion is a strong indicator of postsecondary enrollment, so we should carefully monitor FAFSA renewal as a predictor of emerging fall enrollment trends,” says NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook.

On Feb. 29 of this year, there were about 138,000 fewer returning applicants with a completed FAFSA than through the same day last year. March’s COVID-19-related upheaval and the subsequent conversion of countless college campuses to virtual instruction accelerated FAFSA completion declines. The next three data reporting periods, ending March 15, March 30, and April 15 saw double-digit declines in completions relative to last year, totaling -10.2%, -20%, and -15.3%, respectively. Between the start of March and April 15, the gap between this cycle and last ballooned by nearly 225,000 students.

The decrease in FAFSA renewals is even steeper among returning applicants from low-income backgrounds. Without completing a FAFSA, students who could benefit the most from receiving financial aid are less likely to receive it. Through April 15, the total number of completions from returning applicants earning (or from families earning) less than $25,000 are down more than 8% (244,021 applicants). Returning applicants of income between $25,000 and $50,000 have seen a 4% (64,603 applicants) decrease, while those with income greater than $50,000 have declined just 1% (27,318) this cycle.

The period between March 15 and April 15 was particularly devastating for FAFSA completions from low-income students; FSA received 21.8% fewer FAFSA completions from returning applicants with income less than $25,000, and 18.4% fewer from the next-highest income level.

Pell Grant-eligible returning applicants saw similar trends but were hit even harder between March 15 and April 15. There were 24.3% fewer Pell Grant-eligible returning applicants from the lowest income group and 20.3% fewer from the group earning between $25,000 and $50,000.

In a recent poll of college presidents, respondents said, “Their primary concerns in the immediate and long term are about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on low-income and underrepresented students, a recognition that even in the best of times those students are most vulnerable to seeing their educations derailed and their personal well-being threatened.”

“We urge colleges to closely monitor their enrolled student FAFSA completion rates and offer support to meet students’ needs as best they can to ensure continued enrollment for next year,” says MorraLee Keller, NCAN’s director of technical assistance.

Declines in FAFSA Completion Among High School Seniors, Too

Through the #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, NCAN has been closely monitoring FAFSA completion trends among high school seniors in the class of 2020. From March 13 to April 17, the percent change in year-over-year completions decreased by 2.8 percentage points, from 0.2% to -2.6%. This represents a decline of more than 50,000 FAFSA completions.

Since March 13, every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have experienced significant year-over-year declines. If completions maintain their current trajectory, a smaller percentage of the class of 2020 will complete a FAFSA than the class of 2019.

One poll from March shows students reconsidering their postsecondary options and decisions for the fall.

Resources to Help

The devastating trends in FAFSA completion among both first-time and returning filers speak to these students’ critical need for support, both technical and moral, during this extremely difficult time. NCAN members, community-based partners, school districts, colleges and universities, and other student-focused organizations have done their best to meet students’ myriad needs throughout the spring and will continue to do so this summer, fall, and beyond.

NCAN compiled a list of resources related to supporting students amid COVID-19; this continuously updated page is available to the public, but NCAN members should also take advantage of webinars and other technical assistance directly from staff.

Visit the Form Your Future website for additional FAFSA completion resources, such as a guide that addresses common questions from students and families of limited means, a listing of state-specific supports, and more.

NCAN continues to monitor FAFSA completion closely. Stay tuned for updates on this key indicator of postsecondary enrollment intention.

For additional insights, visit the #FormYourFuture FAFSA renewals dashboard. You can also check out the full data file for the 4/17/2020 FAFSA renewal data from FSA.