News: Financial Aid

FAFSA Completion Update: High School Seniors Continue Slide, Mixed News on Renewals

Monday, May 18, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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NCAN continues to closely monitor FAFSA completions across the country among both high school seniors filing for the first time and currently enrolled postsecondary students submitting renewals for next year.

The #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which refreshes weekly with new data from Federal Student Aid, is now updated through May 8. A separate dashboard on renewals is updated semi-monthly and now contains data through April 30. The former shows a continuing decline in completions among high school seniors that has not eased up since March 13; the latter shows a small, but positive, bounce among FAFSA renewals overall in April’s second half, while applications from Pell-eligible students from the lowest-income backgrounds continued to decline.

FAFSA Completion Among High School Seniors (Through May 8)

The week of March 16 is when many states nationwide closed schools temporarily and/or began the arduous shift to virtual instruction. On March 13, the class of 2020 had 0.2% more FAFSA completions nationally than the class of 2019, but since that date, this year’s total completions have slipped further and further behind.

The class of 2020 now has 3.3% fewer FAFSA completions than last year’s class, representing 66,295 fewer seniors. Just one state, California, has more completions this year than last year (for comparison, as of Aug. 23 of last year’s cycle for the class of 2019, 14 states were even with or had more completions than the class of 2018 cycle).

NCAN estimates that 52.6% of this senior class has completed a FAFSA. By June 30 of last year, 57% of the class of 2019 completed a FAFSA. At the current trajectory, and absent a concerted effort from students and stakeholders across the country, the class of 2020 will likely fall short of that 57% mark, though not by much.

The decline in FAFSA completions continues to disproportionately affect high schools serving students from low-income backgrounds and high schools in small towns and rural places. Looking at high schools by Title I eligibility, on May 8, Title I eligible high schools nationally had 4.5% fewer completions than on the same date last year while non-Title I eligible high schools were down 2.4%. Neither figure is encouraging, but completions being down so much more in Title I high schools is particularly discouraging.

Similarly, high schools in rural places (-3.9% completions through May 8 compared to last year) and small towns (-5.5%) are both seeing declines compared to suburban (-3.1%) and urban (-2.2%) high schools.

FAFSA Renewals (Through April 30)

Turning to FAFSA renewals, Federal Student Aid released to NCAN data through April 30 and disaggregated by age, income, and Pell eligibility. From April 16-30, renewals showed a 2.4% increase compared to the same 15 days last year, but renewals from Pell-eligible students still declined 3.3%. Through April 30, there were 4.4% fewer FAFSA renewals total compared to last year, but among Pell-eligible students that figure was -5.5%.

There is good news and bad news on that -3.3% drop in renewals among Pell-eligible applicants in April’s second half. The good news is that Pell-eligible students reporting income between $25,000 and $50,000 submitted 3% more FAFSAs than in the same period last year, and Pell-eligible students earning more than $50,000 submitted 7.2% more applications.

The bad news is that among Pell-eligible students earning less than $25,000, 8% fewer applicants completed a FAFSA from April 16-30 than did last year. The four periods ending March 15, March 30, April 15, and April 30 saw this last group’s renewal applications decline by -15.1%, -25%, -23.6%, and -8%.

Readers of the NCAN blog hardly need to be reminded that even in a “normal” year the lowest-income students have the highest barriers to hurdle, and in the face of a global pandemic, the field is seeing FAFSA declines that in real-world terms suggest changing postsecondary plans for next year.

What to make of the small bounce in renewals overall in the back half of April is an open question. It could be that disruptions in March and April will push the completion curve out by a few months, but with so much uncertainty around campuses in the fall, to say nothing of economic and public health uncertainties, that later push for renewals is far from a given. One data point does not a trend make, and the data through May 15 will be illuminating.

NCAN has curated 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.

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