Early FAFSA deadline: Student finance changes

A look at how new financial aid rules impact admissions and enrollment

The Department of Education in 2015 announced the move to an earlier FAFSA filing date using prior-prior year guidelines. Since then, colleges and universities that receive federal Title IV financial aid have worked tirelessly to assess the potential implications to enrollment and to make the adjustments needed in the first year of implementation.

In a survey, nearly two-thirds of private institutions and about half of publics indicated they would attempt to provide financial aid packages earlier than usual. The remaining schools did not plan to make significant changes in the first year of early FAFSA.

Among the reasons given for postponing their response: Constraints beyond the admissions and/or financial aid office’s control, delayed confirmation of new tuition and fees, delayed system updates, and simply holding off to see what competitor institutions would do.

The major concerns were related to timing and processing. Would the Department of Education and third-party vendors provide updates for the schools’ systems in time to ensure proper implementation?

Regarding processing, potential conflicts in verification were expected—considering that the same income year (2015) would serve as the basis for two FAFSA cycles.

Once it was established that most of the technical information and guidelines for processing would be available, the Department of Education provided frequent updates and institutions provided information to prospective students and their families about the changes.

Who filed early?

So, how did this first year of early filing work out? Have students—especially those from underserved social, ethnic and economic backgrounds—been able to take advantage of the change and the extended decision-making period?

A review of filing rates nationwide for the 2017-18 academic cycle was published by enrollment management consultant Todd White earlier this year.

White’s initial findings showed a 27.4 percent increase in the first four weeks of filing. Moreover, this increase in filing, combined with a 12.4 percent drop in applications rejected during that period, resulted in a 34.1 percent increase of completed FAFSAs.

Further research will be necessary to determine whether lower-income families took advantage of early filing.

Initial responses to FAFSA filing this year should have prompted enrollment leadership at colleges and universities to analyze their own data more carefully.

Kent Barnds, executive vice president at Augustana College in Illinois, shared his results in a recent Inside Higher Ed article (UBmag.me/kb). He wrote that early in the filing cycle, Augustana had exceeded last year’s total volume for accepted first-year students by 40 percent.

However, almost 20 percent of those filers hadn’t applied for admission at the college, and more than 40 percent of students of color who had applied for admission hadn’t filed a FAFSA yet. While this is only one example, it clearly denotes the importance for institutions to dig deep into their data to ensure that their applicants are filing FAFSAs.

Questions remain

Having a large number of students filing FAFSAs two months earlier would suggest that there is a desire among a significant portion of prospective students and their families to get earlier information on institutional financial aid.

College and university enrollment leadership should respond by providing earlier aid awards to applicants who take advantage of this opportunity.

In addition, it will be important to recalibrate trends for enrollment targets, including applications, admits, deposits and enrollment.

More analysis is needed to fully understand the effect of early FAFSA and to identify who took advantage of early filing. Was it indeed families with higher incomes? What about first-generation college students? Was there a difference among socioeconomic or racial groups?

Finally, as recruiting begins for fall 2018, it will also be important to determine what was learned from schools that took advantage of early FAFSA by packaging earlier.

The answers to these questions will determine whether early filing truly benefits those it was intended to.

Roberto A. Santizo is a senior enrollment management consultant with Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

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