Why a 4.8% drop in financial aid filings is ‘disheartening’

NCAN data director shares insight, potential solutions.
By: | July 19, 2021
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More than 100,000 fewer high school seniors have completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms than in 2020, according to new, “disheartening” data released by the National College Attainment Network.

The report represents a 4.8% dropoff in year-over-year filings. All told, NCAN says around 270,000 fewer high school students have completed FAFSA forms than expected since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“It’s a very thin silver lining that we got within 5% of last year,” Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation at NCAN, told University Business. “For there to be more than a quarter million fewer FAFSAs completed relative to 2019, that represents a tremendous shifting of postsecondary pathways for students. That has real implications for students, families, communities, and our country overall.”

Numbers plummeted from October 2020 through early March as uncertainty over coronavirus and financial hardships impacted families. Class of 2021 submissions in October were down 14.3% year over year, while the two previous cycles (2020-21 +14.9%, 2019-20 +0.5%) both saw gains.

One of the few positives to come out of the data is that numbers have risen steadily since the early part of this year. There is also still time for students to get them done. But leveling totals from the past two cycles is “very unlikely”, DeBaun said. All told, only about 53% of high schoolers completed FAFSA forms by July 2, down 2.5% from this time in 2020.

“When you’re an organization that focuses on college access, there are never enough FAFSA completions,” DeBaun said. “Of the three previous cycles, we hadn’t hit 60%. That strikes me as low. We’d love to see the national completion rate be at least up into the 60s consistently, and we know it can be. Louisiana, New Jersey and Illinois top 60% pretty consistently.”

Assessing the future

Unless there is a sharp turnaround, numbers may be mirrored for fall enrollment, particularly when it comes to underserved students. Although some institutions have reported record numbers of applications and robust acceptances, some may fall short of targets. Community colleges are again collectively holding their breath.

NCAN noted that FAFSA submissions dropped by 6.5% for Title I public high school filers, compared with a 3.5% fall from other schools. Schools with a majority of Black and Hispanic students experienced an 8% decline in filings, compared with 2.2% at others.

“The pandemic has most negatively impacted the students who can benefit the most from completing the FAFSA,” DeBaun said. “And when we students disconnected from those advising supports, we shouldn’t be surprised to see big FAFSA completion declines.

“For students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students and students of color, college-going is not just a light switch they put on. They need the post-secondary advice and support to complete milestones like the FAFSA. We really need to be thinking in terms of policy and practice about how we reconnect students who have postsecondary aspirations.”

So, what can be done to stem the declines heading into the next cycle?

“K-12 districts and schools have a responsibility to make sure students take the next step after graduation—whether it’s college or career—finding the pathway that meets their aspirations,” DeBaun says. “For colleges and universities, the K-12 pipeline is a major source of enrollment. They should be reaching out to districts and asking, what kind of outreach can we proactively do for students? How can we connect with them to let them know that a postsecondary pathway is possible, to answer questions about financial aid, to answer their questions about affordability, to answer questions about orientation? Institutions can’t be passive at this point. Students need proactive outreach.”

To that end, DeBaun says, a multi-pronged approach that includes strong advisory support and collaboration, might be needed.

“There is room for local and regional partnerships to flourish, including the K-12 and higher ed sectors and potentially community-based organizations where, matriculation patterns do tend to be local,” he said. “There needs to be a more active collaboration to find out what normal pathways look like. We hear the word intrusive sometimes and think about it as a negative. But in this case, being intrusive with students may give them the information they need to take that next step.”