The number to pay attention to with regard to FAFSA completion right now is -3.2%. Through the end of May, both high school seniors’ completions and renewal applications were down 3.2% year-over-year. June 30 traditionally marks the unofficial end of the FAFSA, at least for high school seniors. Although this cycle and year have been anything but traditional and it’s likely there will be more summer FAFSA filing this year, with a week to go before that milestone it looks like there will be fewer FAFSAs completed this year than last year.
Starting with high school seniors, through June 5, NCAN estimates that 54.6% of the class of 2021 has completed a FAFSA (June 12 data will be out by the time you’re reading this article). Unsurprisingly, Tennessee (75.8%) and Louisiana (72.0%) are tops by percent of their classes completing, and the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts round out the top five. By June 30 last year, about 57% of the class of 2020 completed a FAFSA, so it is possible that the class of 2021 will reach that same level. This is possible because the class of 2021 is about 1% smaller nationally than previous class, but this varies considerably from state to state.
By percent change year-over-year, FAFSA completions have hovered at -3.2% for most of May. California remains the only state with more FAFSAs completed this year than last, and it is hanging onto that distinction by a scant 0.2% (about 500 FAFSAs). There have been nearly 70,000 fewer FAFSAs completed this year than last, and although enrollment declines account for some of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role, too.
With FAFSA renewals, the news is more positive for students. Renewals bottomed out through April 15, when they were down 4.7% compared to last year (Pell-eligible renewals were down 5.7%). Since then, renewals saw a big bounce in May and clawed back 1.5 percentage points. Through May 31, Pell-eligible renewals also gained 0.8 percentage points and are now down 4.7%.
Renewals from students with income greater than $25,000 and especially greater than $50,000 drove those increases. Unfortunately for students from the lowest-income backgrounds, those making less than $25,000 annually, FAFSA declines have persisted even though they have slowed.
To put this in context, through May 31, FAFSA cumulative renewals from students earning more than $50,000 are actually up 0.8% compared to last year. FAFSA completions from students with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000 are down 2.3% year-over-year, but students from the lowest income backgrounds are down a whopping 7.2%, representing nearly 240,000 fewer FAFSAs completed.
FAFSA completion remains a key early warning indicator given its association with students’ intent to enroll and persist. Although May gave us some encouraging signs, these have to be put in the context of the big picture, which is that completions for both first-time and renewal filers are both down more than 3% compared to last year. That represents a lot of students who may be missing out on financial aid or who may not be attending a postsecondary institution in the fall.