FAFSA Renewal Declines Have More Than Doubled Since Before Pandemic

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

There has been a substantial drop in FAFSA renewals compared to this time last year, according to an analysis of federal data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), which showed the 2020-2021 aid cycle’s declines in renewals have more than doubled since the end of February, when total completions were already 2.3% lower than on the same date last year. 

Through April 15, there were 4.7% fewer FAFSA renewals — more than 350,000 returning students — this cycle than last, according to NCAN’s dashboard tracking FAFSA renewal and completion data.

Overall, the steep decline represents 244,000 fewer renewals from students from the lowest-income backgrounds. Among those from low-income backgrounds, classified as students with annual family incomes of less than $25,000, the drop represents a more than 8% decline.

For students coming from families with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000, FAFSA renewals dropped 4%, with a 1% decrease among students coming from families with incomes above $50,000. Taken together, the overall decline may shed light on future enrollment trends.

“FAFSA completion is a strong indicator of postsecondary enrollment, so we should carefully monitor FAFSA renewal as a predictor of emerging fall enrollment trends,” NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook said in a statement.

Among Pell Grant-eligible returning applicants, between March 15 and April 15 there were roughly 24% fewer from the lowest-income group and about 20% fewer from the next highest income bracket.

NCAN noted that both FAFSA completions and renewals were decreasing steadily through February compared to last year, pointing to 138,000 fewer returning applicants with a completed FAFSA than through the same point last year.

Starting in March, FAFSA completions began to plummet, with a double-digit percentage decline for each of the three following data reporting periods, ending March 15, March 30, and April 15.

In early April, experts were starting to grow concerned as they saw new FAFSA completions drop considerably in the first data reporting period after nearly all high schoolers across the country left school to finish the academic year from home. At the time, they said data from the next few weeks will be instructive in determining how much the pandemic is impacting FAFSA completion and renewal rates. 

With more data points now available, a grim picture for future enrollment at higher education institutions is beginning to emerge. Since the middle of March, all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have experienced substantial year-over-year declines in FAFSA completions. If the current trajectory holds, “a smaller percentage of the class of 2020 will complete a FAFSA than the class of 2019,” according to NCAN.

“We urge colleges to closely monitor their enrolled student FAFSA completion rates and offer support to meet students’ needs as best they can to ensure continued enrollment for next year,” said MorraLee Keller, NCAN’s director of technical assistance.


Publication Date: 5/7/2020

Lauren P | 5/7/2020 10:57:38 AM

I suspect that the decline in renewals has more to do with the impact of the virus. I would expect to see an uptick in renewal applications in the coming months.

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