June 30 marks the unofficial end of each FAFSA cycle, at least for high school seniors, as the K-12 academic year ends and students turn to their postsecondary plans. Monitoring FAFSA completions is a nearly year-round activity here at NCAN, thanks to the #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, so the end of June gives us a chance to report on the nation’s progress. Unfortunately, for the 2019-20 FAFSA cycle (which looks at data from the high school class of 2019), completions were a mixed bag.
We estimate that 61.2% of high school graduates completed a FAFSA (up 0.3% from last year), but 57% of high school seniors completed a FAFSA (down 0.4% from last year). Overall, 10,248 fewer FAFSAs were completed through June 28 of this year than through the same period last year; this represents a year-over-year decrease of -0.5%.
Starting when the new FAFSA cycle opens in October, Federal Student Aid releases FAFSA submission and completion data weekly. Through June 28, the FSA data show 2,173,096 completions compared to 2,183,344 last year. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates there were 3,549,010 graduates in the class of 2019, a slight decrease over the class of 2018. This means that an estimated 61.2% of class of 2019 graduates completed a FAFSA compared to 60.9% and 60.6% of the classes of 2018 and 2017, respectively.
By percent change, the -0.5% year-over-year decline follows a sluggish 1.9% increase in last year’s cycle over its 2017-18 predecessor. The 2017-18 cycle, in turn, saw a 9% increase in the number of completions over the 2016-17 cycle; this big increase came on the heels of two policy changes, early FAFSA and prior-prior year tax data, which made completing the FAFSA a bit easier for students and families.
The FAFSA Tracker allows users to explore completion data at the national, state, city, district, and school level, so NCAN can pick out some of the bright spots from the current cycle. For the second year in a row, Louisiana topped NCAN’s ranking of states by percentage of seniors completing a FAFSA; 78.7% of Bayou State seniors did so, no doubt fueled by the state’s policy mandating FAFSA completion for high school graduation. Also for the second year in a row, Tennessee put in a very strong performance with 77.8% of seniors completing a FAFSA. Delaware (68.2%), Washington, D.C. (67.9%), and New Jersey (66.6%) rounded out the top five in this ranking.
Meanwhile, by year-over-year change, Rhode Island increased its number of completions the most (+9.2%) while also finishing seventh by percentage of seniors completing. Utah (+8.7%), Texas (+3.6%), Arizona (+2.1%), and California (+2.0%) rounded out the top five most-improved states compared to last cycle. That the nation’s two most populous states are in the top five of FAFSA completion growth is certainly encouraging.
Less encouraging is that just 13 states had more FAFSA completions in the 2019-20 cycle than in 2018-19. Eleven states and the District of Columbia had a decreased number of FAFSA completions this cycle by 3% or more. Similarly, 11 states had fewer than 50% of seniors complete a FAFSA this cycle. For the second year in a row, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, Utah, and Alaska were the states with the lowest percentage of seniors completing a FAFSA.
NerdWallet estimates that the high school class of 2018 left $2.6 billion in Pell Grants alone on the table, and Form Your Future reports that students miss out on $24 billion in total aid annually. Stagnant FAFSA completion figures like those above are drivers of these unclaimed funds.
It is worth noting that the state-level estimates above are, indeed, 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, we are using 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.
Although NCAN mentioned this in its recap of last year’s FAFSA completion cycle, it bears repeating that FAFSA completion and college-going are countercyclical to the health of the economy. Given the continued low national unemployment rate, the relative strength of the American economy is not likely to push prospective students on the margin to enroll. Still, given NCAN’s recent findings about the association between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment – namely that students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile who completed a FAFSA were 127% more likely to be enrolled in the fall following high school graduation than their counterparts without a FAFSA completion – seeing a year-over-year decrease in the number of FAFSA completions (even if that number represents a slight increase to the percentage of graduates) is discouraging.
The June 30 completion figures aren’t the only new pieces of FAFSA data. In a “FAFSA 2020-21 Update” presentation at the 2019 NASFAA National Conference on June 26, FSA staff shared that from Oct. 1, 2018 through May 31, 2019, there were nearly half a million fewer total FAFSA submissions (not just high school seniors) than through the same dates a year prior (see slide 32). Examining applications by income, students reporting income of less than $40,000 comprised 54.4% of applications in the 2019-20 cycle, compared to 56.5% of applications in the previous cycle. Meanwhile, students from higher income brackets all saw their relative percentage of applications tick up slightly. On a more encouraging note, the presenters reported a 4.2 percentage-point increase in the share of FAFSA applicants using the data retrieval tool (DRT), and the myStudentAid app received about 849,000 downloads.
Looking ahead, the 2022-23 FAFSA cycle should be an interesting one. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into a law a measure similar to Louisiana’s whereby FAFSA completion will be mandatory for high school graduation. If Texas were to see a jump in completions similar to that experienced by Louisiana in the 2018-19 cycle, it would have a huge impact on the 2022-23 cycle a few years from now. California and Indiana are considering similar policy changes, and NCAN will keep readers apprised of developments here.
NCAN prioritizes FAFSA completion through our programming, advocacy, and the Form Your Future campaign. Each year, more than $24 billion of financial aid goes unclaimed. The results of the 2019-20 cycle clearly show that more work remains to advance the goal of connecting students with the financial support they need to make postsecondary education a reality.