2016-17 FAFSA Completion News: The Good and the Bad

May 12, 2016

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnership and Policy

Throughout the peak 2016-17 FAFSA season, NCAN heard two recurring themes from NCAN members: the FSA ID is creating additional hurdles for students to access financial aid, and we’re seeing decreasing numbers of FAFSAs completed. Now in May, there are important updates on both topics: 

The Good: The White House announced on April 28 that United States Digital Services and Federal Student Aid would work together to review and streamline the FSA ID process. NCAN applauds the review and anticipates improvements to the FSA ID as the nation prepares for Early FAFSA to start this October. Removing every unnecessary hurdle for students is the key to increasing access to federal financial aid. 

The Bad: The number of FAFSAs completed by high school seniors nationally from April 29, 2015 to April 29, 2016 fell 3.2%. This represents almost 52,000 students who submitted the FAFSA but still do not have a completed FAFSA on file. Avid NCAN Success Digest readers will note that these numbers are improved over our initial February review, but are still not positive for students.

Digging deeper into the numbers, submitted FAFSAs were only down 1.2%. The fact that the rate of change isn’t proportional means that over 30,000 students have not yet completed the FAFSA this year who likely would have last year. This 2.0 percentage point gap in the decrease of FAFSAs submitted versus completed is one of the many reasons NCAN has facilitated conversations (FSA/Member meeting, FSA ID Guidance) between our members and FSA about the FSA ID: to ensure that logistical processes are not hampering students’ ability to access the aid for which they qualify. 

Nationally, in 2016 51.8% of high school seniors submitted a FAFSA and 47.6% completed a FAFSA, if calculated based on the projected high school graduates for this year. Last year, the numbers were 52.3% and 49.1%, respectively. Some headlines or policymakers may theorize that the improving economy means fewer people are pursuing higher education. While this explanation makes sense for adults already in the job market, it does not hold as much credibility for high school seniors, who have planned to go to college long before they know if they are able to get a full time job above minimum wage at graduation. As the only publicly available FAFSA completion rates are for high school seniors, the economy does not seem to answer this question. (I calculated these numbers by aggregating state level data from the FAFSA Completion Tool.)

At the state level, there are some shining examples, but in general, the numbers are fairly uniform there too, with submissions down and completions down even more. In fact, only four states increased the number of FAFSAs completed (Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and West Virginia) even though 14 states increased overall FAFSA submissions. The other ten states with increased FAFSA submissions actually had fewer students cross the finish line this year than last. Tennessee, with its popular Tennessee Promise and its FAFSA completion requirement, falls into that bucket (though it remains the top state for percent of FAFSAs completed according to Chad Aldeman at Bellwether Education Partners.) The remaining 32 states and the District of Columbia had decreased rates for both FAFSA submissions and completions. Use the graphs below to see the change in submission and completion rates for your state, or Chad Aldeman’s “2016 FAFSA Completion Rates by State” for more state by state analysis. (Note this blog uses April 15 FAFSA completion data, which accounts for the shifts in some states being in the “increase” or “decrease” category.)

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