News: Financial Aid

Bounce in Summer FAFSAs Never Materialized; Summer Enrollment Down

Tuesday, September 8, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Given the massive disruptions students experienced this past spring, it was plausible that we might see a bump in summer FAFSA completions over and above those that typically occur in July and August.

It hasn’t materialized.

Earlier this summer, NCAN was searching for silver linings despite declines in FAFSA completions by both high school seniors and currently enrolled students. As summer ends and students return to school, in-person or, more likely, virtually, there are even fewer positives to highlight.

Through the end of August, FAFSA completions from high school seniors declined 4.2% compared to last year, which represents 100,987 fewer high school seniors completing the FAFSA. NCAN estimates that 60.6% of the class of 2020 completed a FAFSA, compared to 62% through approximately the same date last year.

These figures come from NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which is now updated with completions through Aug. 28.

Between June 26 and Aug. 28 this year, the class of 2020 gained 4%, climbing from 55.6% completing a FAFSA to 60.6%. Compare that to 2019, when from June 28 to Aug. 23 last year, the class of 2019 gained about 4.9%, moving from 57% to 62%.

Just one state, Hawaii, has more FAFSA completions this year than last year. Half of states have completion deficits greater than 4 percentage points compared to last year.

Unsurprisingly, students from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately affected. Title I-eligible public high schools had FAFSA completion deficits of 5.9% compared to last year; non-Title I-eligible public high schools’ collective deficit was 3.0%.

High schools in small towns (-6.1%) and rural places (-4.6%) continue to have FAFSA completion deficits larger than those in suburban (-4.1%) and urban (-3.7%) areas.

NCAN has also been tracking data on FAFSA renewals for currently enrolled students. Data through the end of August should be available this week, at which point we will update this blog post. After seeing massive drops in FAFSA completion in March and April, May and June saw significant improvements. Unfortunately, July and August once again saw FAFSA completion declines. Students with the lowest incomes saw the largest declines and the smallest recoveries; through mid-August there have been 5.8% fewer FAFSA renewals from students with income less than $25,000. This represents about 230,000 fewer students this year than last.

Overall, there have been 2.8% fewer FAFSAs completed by Pell-eligible students for the 2020-21 academic year. Readers can explore the FAFSA renewal data through another dashboard in NCAN’s #FormYourFuture Tracker suite.

The college access field monitors FAFSA completion so closely because of its close association with postsecondary enrollment. Decreased FAFSA completion in the spring and summer can spell fewer students matriculating in the fall. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) on postsecondary enrollment this summer may be another harbinger for what we can expect this fall.

Male undergraduates saw a 5.2% decline in summer enrollment compared to last year. For Black male and female undergraduates, it was a 6.1% decline compared to a 2.3% decline for White students. By credential, undergraduate certificates (-11.7%) and associate degrees (-5%) both declined while other academic programs saw year-over-year increases; this coincides with community colleges seeing a 5.6% drop in enrollment, which was driven by a whopping 13.6% decrease in male enrollment. The NSC’s data visualization for the report is clear and compelling; it is worth your time.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook said of the NSCRC’s data, “Here are the numbers to confirm our fears. … If they are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the fall, that’s very concerning.”

New support from ECMC and Ascendium Education Group will allow the NSCRC to produce a new report series that will address student transfer, mobility, and progress, with dates subject to change. Look out for an early response report in October representing fall 2020 and an end of term report in December.

It’s disappointing not to have better news to report on the FAFSA front, but NCAN’s hope is that by amplifying these data policymakers and the public will understand and be able to quantify the challenges facing students and the field. A new FAFSA cycle begins on Oct. 1, and NCAN and the #FormYourFuture FAFSA Trackers will relaunch to cover the 2021-22 cycle.

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