Forecasting the Future: Strategies for Navigating Post-FAFSA Enrollment Challenges

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

In an opening general session, a panel of higher education experts on Monday convened for a discussion on the critical trends and challenges facing students and schools in the wake of the disruptions caused by the troubled rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA, the pandemic, and the enrollment cliff.

The discussion at NASFAA’s 2024 National Conference in Milwaukee was moderated by Beth Maglione, executive vice president at NASFAA, who was joined by leaders in the higher education space who shared their experiences and provided their perspective on how today's challenges will impact tomorrow's students.

Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse, provided a number of timely statistics about how varying sectors have been impacted by ongoing crises, which have threatened enrollments and created more barriers to higher education for vulnerable populations.

One startling statistic concerned the recovery from the pandemic, which per Shapiro’s data shows that enrollments are down for roughly 900,000 students since fall of 2019.

Some sectors have recovered more strongly than others, but community colleges, particularly those with a focus on transfer students, have seen sharp declines, while four-year public and private institutions have seen slight declines of roughly 3%, indicating that the recovery is both tenuous and slow.

Shapiro also provided an update on when more data will become available to provide insight on when professionals will have a better sense of what impact the FAFSA rollout has had on enrollment numbers. According to Shapiro, that data will not be available until the fall of this year when enrollment numbers are made official for the fall semester.

Angel Perez, chief executive officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), joined the conversation to explain that high school counselors are really struggling with FAFSA because of the form’s complications and the number of students they need to serve.

The discussion also covered the ongoing challenges with keeping students in the higher education pipeline due to costs and the perceived value of postsecondary education.

Perez acknowledged that we are living in “dangerous times” for higher education, due to the rhetoric surrounding its perceived value, and urged advocates to focus their energy at the local level since the majority of education policy comes from state and local government governments.

Michele Scott Taylor, president of College Now Greater Cleveland, provided attendees with lessons from the pandemic.

According to Taylor, once the trauma of the pandemic hit all populations, there was a greater focus on providing resources to students in need, and that more students were able to access technologies that were needed to allow for remote learning.

When it comes to the FAFSA rollout, Taylor said some students who decided to intentionally delay filling out the form have not had to experience ongoing errors and she remains hopeful that corrections will enable these students to more easily complete the form.

Billie Jo Hamilton, associate vice president for enrollment planning & management at the University of South Florida, said that some crises facing the profession, like the pandemic,  have been natural disasters, while others, like the FAFSA rollout, have been just plain disasters and that aid administrators are still working to get a sense of what fall enrollment will look like.

Projections for the future are still unclear because indicators for enrollment are soft, since deposit dates for enrollment have been delayed and students are attending multiple orientations as they assess their options for the fall, Hamilton shared.

Ultimately, Hamilton said time will tell how enrollment will fare for the fall cycle, but she remains hopeful that upcoming cycles will provide a positive gain, particularly for low-income students.


Publication Date: 6/17/2024

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