Add FAFSA completion to the immeasurably long list of things affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Through mid-April, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completions by both high school seniors and students currently enrolled in postsecondary education faced significant year-over-year declines. Most notably, nearly 250,000 fewer students from low-income backgrounds renewed their FAFSA by April 15 this year as compared to last year.
Given the close association between completing the FAFSA and postsecondary enrollment, the data paint a dispiriting picture of what the fall might look like on and around campuses nationwide.
FAFSA Completion Among High School Seniors
The #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which tracks completions among high school seniors, is populated with data from Federal Student Aid, and it is updated weekly throughout the FAFSA cycle to show information at the national, state, city, district, and school levels. At the time of this writing, the Tracker contains data on high school seniors’ FAFSA completions through May 1.
The class of 2020 has completed 3.1% (about 61,000) fewer FAFSAs than the class of 2019. Although the percentage of seniors completing a FAFSA is similar across the two classes, at the current trajectory the class of 2020 will trail the previous class by that metric, too. As of May 1, just two states, California (+1.0%) and Nevada (+0.2%) have more completed FAFSAs than last year.
In mid-March, as schools around the country began to close in response to the coronavirus, NCAN released a new interactive dashboard tracking the high school senior FAFSA completion data by various measures, including completion by Title I eligible high schools and by geography. As of May 1, Title I eligible high schools’ completion deficit is 83% larger than non-Title I-eligible high schools. Small towns and rural places have also seen their completion lag last year at higher rates than urban and suburban areas.
Pivoting to FAFSA renewals, NCAN analyzed a data set provided by Federal Student Aid with information on currently enrolled students’ FAFSA completion through April 15. FAFSA renewals overall are down nearly 5% (more than 350,000 students) compared to last year.
This cycle’s declines in FAFSA renewals more than doubled between Feb. 29 (when there were 2.3% fewer completions than on the same date last year) and April 15 (4.7% fewer FAFSA completions this cycle than last).
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 students from low-income backgrounds; 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.
“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.
Resources for Supporting Students
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.