"How Many Students Did We Lose?" Aid Offices Fear Enrollment Repercussions After Rocky FAFSA Rollout

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

College Decision Day came and went with little fanfare this year. 

A day that normally involves celebration and excitement as high school seniors officially decide where they’ll attend college for the upcoming year, May 1 looked different for students this year, with many still undecided on which institution they’ll attend, or if they can even afford the institutions they’ve been accepted into. 

That’s in large part because of the botched rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA, which has been chaotic from the get-go. Due to ongoing delays and technical errors, many students could not even complete the FAFSA until recently because of an issue preventing contributors without a Social Security number from accessing the form. 

The problems have been so widespread that many institutions are now anticipating downstream impacts in their enrollment numbers for the coming school year, as FAFSA completions are still lagging far behind previous years’ numbers.

The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) tracks annually submissions and completions for each FAFSA cycle. As of May 3, 2024, NCAN found that only 38.1% of high school seniors completed a FAFSA. That is a 20.5% decrease from the last academic year. 

According to Jill Orcutt, global consulting lead for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) Consulting, many institutions do not believe they have a good understanding of their enrollment numbers for this fall. 

“We will not know the full impact of the FAFSA issues until classes start in August for semester schools and September for quarter schools,” Orcutt said. “The FAFSA issues have caused enrollment concerns throughout the enrollment cycle from students not being able to submit their FAFSA, to students not having financial aid offers in time to submit their admissions deposits, to students not feeling they can commit to the financial commitment of signing a housing contract, orientation, and registration for classes.”

NASFAA spoke with several enrollment and financial aid experts on how issues with the rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA could impact enrollment for the upcoming academic year, and beyond. 

While the glitches and technical issues with the FAFSA have certainly not helped FAFSA completions, Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives, said that the bigger issue is that high school seniors had less time to complete it, as the form didn’t launch until late December. Typically, the FAFSA is released October 1. 

“Students have just had a much smaller window to complete the FAFSA,” DeBaun said. “The technical glitches, all that kind of stuff, doesn't help at all. But the fact of the matter is that this class had just nearly 100 fewer days to complete the FAFSA. And that's what's really a challenge.”

Looking at the first 15 weeks that students were able to complete the FAFSA — starting from October 1, 2022 for last year, and from late December for 2024-25 — DeBaun pointed out that more high school seniors this year had actually completed the FAFSA. But due to the truncated timeline, the overall completion rate could still be lower overall.

He added that, by June 30, an optimistic estimate would leave this year’s high school seniors with a FAFSA completion rate that is 10 percentage points lower than last year. 

“We see FAFSA completion as completion rates, and we get college enrollment rates moving in the same direction,” DeBaun said. “The implications here are that we should be really worried about the fall enrollment numbers.”

What’s At Stake

Orcutt noted that the issues with the FAFSA will more likely hurt institutions with higher numbers of aid-eligible students, because many highly selective institutions traditionally have more self-paying students. Enrollment managers across the U.S. have shared their frustration with the FAFSA issues and the impact to first-generation and lower-income students, she added, noting that the issues with the FAFSA have not impacted financial aid eligibility but all the downstream processes – such as housing, orientation, and registration. 

Paula Luff, vice president for enrollment planning and management at Ball State University and a former NASFAA national chair, shared a similar sentiment, noting that affordability is a key indicator as to whether a student will choose to go to college.

“You hear all about Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, but that's not who's really serving most of our students — especially the students who have financial need,” Luff said. “I think we're going to see a decline in enrollment just across the board, especially for low-income, underrepresented first-generation students.”

Brent Tener, assistant provost and executive director of student financial aid at Vanderbilt University and a former NASFAA national chair, emphasized that many students could skip out on attending college entirely because of issues with the FAFSA, thinking they wouldn’t be eligible for any federal student aid. 

“We always talk about how important it is for students to make good financial decisions and do things the right way,” Tener said. “Well, if you can't tell them what their aid offers are going to be, how in the world can they responsibly say [they] can afford this? And so it's a huge barrier.”

Billie Jo Hamilton, associate vice president of enrollment planning and management at the University of South Florida and a former NASFAA national chair, also voiced concerns about how this year’s troubles could impact retention of this year’s high school seniors — noting that some students may have committed to an institution with incorrect or incomplete financial aid information. 

“Students have made a decision based on incomplete financial information — they've put a deposit, they've got a housing contract — but don’t know exactly what financial aid they're going to have,” Hamilton said. “And maybe they're good for a couple of years, but then their savings run out and then we have a retention problem.”

Some worry that the ripple effect will stretch past this upcoming academic year, similar to how some schools are still feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Luff noted that lower enrollment for one academic year means an overall reduction in enrollment for multiple years for an institution. And if an institution is reliant on tuition revenue or the number of students that it enrolls and graduates according to a state’s budget model, it's going to have a long-term impact on the institution’s finances — meaning some institutions could possibly close. Already, dozens of institutions closed in 2023, and several others have announced their closures this year

Looking Forward

As institutions scramble to piece together operations for the coming year, there are already concerns in the higher education community of how the rollout of the 2025-26 FAFSA will play out. So far, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a Senate subcommittee hearing this month that it was ED’s expectation that it will launch the 2025-26 FAFSA on October 1. 

Hamilton said she’s “cautiously optimistic” the 2025-26 FAFSA will be live on October 1, but that there are still many functionalities that need to be built out for next year. 

Luff shared a similar sentiment, noting that for the past few months, it has felt like new errors and glitches were frequently identified. Because of this year’s troubled rollout, she feels like it’s unlikely that ED has made much progress on the 2025-26 FAFSA.

“I don't know how they can even think about launching next year's app,” Luff said. “And when they do, if they make any changes whatsoever — and they have to make some based on inflation — I don't know if they're going to be able to do it.”

But, hope isn’t lost yet. The higher education community remains cautiously optimistic and is working diligently to help students complete the FAFSA, and many institutions have begun to distribute aid offers. NCAN’s DeBaun noted that while FAFSA completion is a good indicator of a student's intent to enroll in college, he doesn’t think demand for students seeking a college education suddenly dropped this year because of all the issues with the FAFSA. 

“I think you have a lot of students out there who still have postsecondary aspirations,” DeBaun said. “Our question from the ‘it takes a village’ lens is how can we continue to nurture that demand for college, to meet students' needs, and to be supportive in getting through the FAFSA process?” 

Tener says he hopes some students who chose not to complete the FAFSA this year or enroll in college pursue higher education next year — but noted that regardless, there will be students that were lost in the process. 

“I hope that the majority of the students that are sitting out taking a gap year will eventually enroll,” Tener said. “We know that life happens for people that say, “Well, I'll go next year,’ and next year never happens. There's going to be some loss in there.”


Publication Date: 5/20/2024

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