June 30, the unofficial end of the FAFSA cycle (despite this cycle officially continuing a whole other calendar year and ending June 30, 2021), is a date that looms large on NCAN’s calendar each year. It’s the date by which we compare FAFSA cycles to each other and measure national progress on this key college access milestone.
Through June of this year, both first-time and renewal FAFSAs are down, but each category has a silver lining. The high school class of 2020’s FAFSA completion rate was within 1.4 percentage points of the class of 2019’s despite a tumultuous spring, and renewal FAFSAs have trended upward in May and June and are now down just 0.4% year-over-year.
NCAN tracks FAFSA completion through a suite of #FormYourFuture FAFSA Trackers. In previous cycles, these examined FAFSA completions only from high school seniors. But this spring, thanks to data from Federal Student Aid, NCAN added a dashboard for renewals as well.
NCAN estimates that 59.5% of high school graduates (down 1.6 percentage points) and 55.6% of high school seniors (down 1.4 percentage points) completed a FAFSA this year. Overall, 80,948 fewer high school FAFSAs were completed this year compared to last year, although a smaller class size overall accounts for some of this difference.
Starting when the new FAFSA cycle opens in October, Federal Student Aid releases FAFSA submission and completion data weekly. Through June 26, the FSA data show 2,089,190 completions compared to 2,170,138 last year. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates there were 3,509,360 graduates in the class of 2020, a 40,000 student decrease over the class of 2019. This means that an estimated 59.5% of class of 2020 graduates completed a FAFSA compared to 61.2% and 60.9% 2019 and 2018, respectively.
Without mincing words, the year-over-year percent change in FAFSA completions is ugly. The -3.7% decline marks the third year in a row where fewer FAFSAs were completed than in the year previous, although last year’s -0.5% decline (roughly 10,000 fewer FAFSAs) is desirable by comparison. Some of the decline in FAFSAs completed is attributable to smaller class size, but COVID-19 and other effects also play a part.
Looking at FAFSA completion by school characteristics, Title I-eligible public high schools (with higher concentrations of students from low-income backgrounds) had FAFSA completion declines twice those of non-Title I-eligible schools (-5.2% to -2.6%). Additionally, public high schools in small towns (-6.2%) and rural places (-4.5%) saw steeper declines than suburban (-3.4%) and urban (-2.9%) high schools.
Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that’s positive in the figures above. That said, indulge some editorializing and contextualizing for a moment. Students across the country lost three to four months of access to in-school support (for FAFSA completion and otherwise). In light of that, a 1.4 percentage-point decrease is not bad as it could have been. Thinking back to mid-March, when FAFSA completion figures were staring at a 45-degree downward angle, to be told that three months later the senior class would lose 1.4 percentage points would have seemed like a silver lining.
To be clear: These FAFSA completion declines represent tens of thousands of students who may have been postsecondary-intending but whose plans and pathways changed, and significant work remains ahead of the field to ensure this isn’t the “lost cohort” that some have speculated it could be. But relative to other scenarios, this could have been much worse.
The FAFSA Tracker allows users to explore completion data at the national, state, city, district, and school levels. The big news at the state level is that Tennessee (76.3%) dethroned Louisiana (73.5%) at the top spot for percentage of seniors completing. The Bayou State had that distinction for two years in a row. Notably both states’ percentages declined from last year. Washington, D.C. (69.3%), New Jersey (65.9%), and Delaware (64.9%) rounded out the top five in this metric as they did last year in a different order.
By percent change, there is little good news to report. Every state, D.C., and Puerto Rico saw fewer FAFSAs completed this year than last year. Forty-two states and Puerto Rico saw percent change declines of more than 2% this year, and half of states saw declines greater than 4%.
Worth remembering is that the figures reported above are estimates. Federal Student Aid’s high school FAFSA completion data is an excellent resource, but we do not capture all FAFSA completions through using it. For example, FSA suppresses high schools with fewer than five FAFSA completions, and these do not appear in NCAN’s estimates. Additionally, student age and first-time FAFSA filing status are proxies for high school senior status in the FSA data. Additionally, NCAN uses projections for the headcount of high school seniors by state. All of this is to urge caution in comparing small differences between states’ outcomes; a state’s relative position in the ranking of seniors completing and percent change is likely a better indicator of its performance than the absolute estimates of either of those metrics.
Pivoting to FAFSA renewals among students currently enrolled at postsecondary institutions, there is better news.
Renewals nationally through June 30 are down 0.4% compared to last year. Renewals hit bottom in mid-April at -4% and climbed steadily back up from there. Renewals among Pell Grant-eligible students are still down 2.6% but much improved from the low of -4.9%.
Considering renewals by income level, students from the lowest-income backgrounds continue to lag. About 170,000 (4.7%) fewer students with income of $25,000 or less have renewed their FAFSA through June 30 compared to last year. This is in comparison to students with income between $25,000 and $50,000 and students with income greater than $50,000, whose renewal rates are actually 0.6% and 3.9% higher than last year, respectively.
Between March 1 and April 30, students from the lowest-income backgrounds saw the steepest declines in FAFSA renewals as institutions across the country shut down in the face of COVID-19. Even as renewals bounced back in May and June, these students saw the smallest gains.
Examining first-time and renewal FAFSA completions as in-depth as we have at NCAN, a few things become clear.
First, students from the lowest-income backgrounds have seen the steepest declines in FAFSA completion. This is troubling because these are the students who would be most likely to benefit from the federal and state financial aid to which completing the FAFSA gains them access.
Second, and this is a reminder more than anything, FAFSA completion is so valuable because it is a predictor. FAFSA completion is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment, and more often than not we would expect a student who completed a FAFSA to subsequently enroll and certainly more often than a similar student who did not complete the FAFSA.
That said, FAFSA completion is not a certainty. Even in a “normal” year, students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds need moral and technical support to complete key milestones toward a postsecondary pathway; it will take a tremendous and concerted effort from K-12, postsecondary, and community-based stakeholders to assist these students. There is still sizable uncertainty about what the fall will look like on college campuses (or in virtual classrooms) across the country. NCAN members can help students navigate that certainty and stay on the pathway toward postsecondary attainment.
NCAN will continue to monitor FAFSA completion rates throughout the summer. Watch this blog for future updates.