Decline in FAFSA Completions Could Spell Trouble as High School Seniors Finish Year From Home

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Completions of the FAFSA have dropped considerably as nearly all high schoolers throughout the country are home for the remainder of the school year due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While it is not immediately clear just how dramatic the drop in applications will be compared to previous years or how it will impact enrollment in the fall, advocates for college access and affordability are beginning to raise concern.

“When we started seeing school closures statewide, we suspected that we would see [a drop] in the data here,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “Sure enough, the data through March 20 show decline in terms of completion year-over-year for all 50 states.”

DeBaun regularly compiles data on FAFSA completions for NCAN’s Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker. He found that from March 13-20, the most current data available, the percent change in year-over-year completions decreased by 0.7%, the second largest single week drop after the first of the year since DeBaun began tracking the data. While the drop may not initially appear to be significant, that number equates to more than 10,000 FAFSAs not being completed, and DeBaun said he fears further decline as the pandemic continues.

Filling out the FAFSA allows students from across the income spectrum to apply for financial aid to see what type and amount of funding for which they qualify. With applications down, DeBaun and others worry students won’t be able to access federal student aid. Data from the form is also taken into consideration for certain types of state and institutional aid.

“Nationally, I think every week from here on out, we will slip a little bit behind last cycle in terms of completion, barring some Herculean effort on behalf of states, the school districts, community organizations and all those kinds of stakeholders that have a vested interest in making sure that students don't leave money on the table,” he said.

Of particular concern are low-income students, who typically stand to gain the most from completing the FAFSA.

“What we see in our research is that so often at the state level, school districts with higher levels of poverty have lower levels of FAFSA completion,” DeBaun said. “Which is unfortunate because that means that the students who could most benefit from completing the FAFSA who could get access to more financial aid are less likely to actually do that.”

Both DeBaun and Ellie Bruecker, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying financial aid and working in the school’s aid office, said the decline in FAFSA completions will disproportionately impact lower-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds, as the schools that serve those populations of students tend to see higher filing trends later in the year. 

“So much in college access advising relies on building trust and having some kind of relationship and rapport with students and their families to guide them through what is a strenuous process for a lot of students and families,” DeBaun said. “And so to pivot that virtually is something that I think will take a little bit of time.”

How schools adapt to more virtual advising will have a direct impact on FAFSA completions, and in turn, fall enrollment at colleges and universities, DeBaun said, noting the strong association between FAFSA completions and immediate enrollment in higher education.

Bruecker noted that several states have already passed their filing deadlines, which could also play a role in the natural dip in completions, but pointed out that the drop this year is not necessarily limited to those states, and is “substantially bigger than the previous two years.”

She added that data from the next few weeks will be instructive in determining how much the pandemic is impacting FAFSA completion rates. 

As the pandemic has shifted learning outside the classroom and forced students to stay at home, states, individual school districts, and college access organizations are starting to get creative in finding ways to connect with students and make sure they are aware of the importance of completing a FAFSA.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education, for example, is hosting a virtual “FAFSA Frenzy” event where students will receive hands-on help with completing the at times complex form. The event typically takes place in person, but this year is being held as an online event to adhere to social distancing guidelines. To respond to students’ questions, staff with the state education commission will use Twitter and Facebook to post videos and answer them directly.

The FAFSA federal filing deadline for the coming academic year is June 30, 2021 but some states and colleges have their own priority deadlines, often much sooner. For instance, the priority filing deadline for Indiana is April 15, making their virtual event all the more important. Several other states had priority filing deadlines of March or April 1, and others have pushed back their deadlines to give students more time to file.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, for example, announced Wednesday that the state had extended its deadline for eligible college students to apply for a renewal of state tuition aid from the original deadline of April 15 to June 1 in response to the coronavirus.

Still, Bruecker said for higher education institutions and high schools alike, informing students of how to navigate and complete the FAFSA is not the top priority right now, instead pointing to more pressing issues such as making sure students are fed and adjusting to distance learning.

She pointed to a “lack of information and lack of resources in schools that serve a lot of low-income students and students of color.” 

“They have fewer school counselors for students and they also have a lot more to deal with beyond just the FAFSA,” she said. “Where this fits into the priority list for resource-strapped and time-constrained school counselors, I'm not sure.”


Publication Date: 4/3/2020

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