Colleges Plan Admissions Shifts Under Early FAFSA

August 2, 2016

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Update: Ted Mitchell, the top higher education official at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote to college presidents on Aug 8 asking them “not to move any priority financial aid deadlines earlier than your deadlines for recent years,” so as not to unintentionally harm low-income and first-generation students applying for financial aid this fall.
Mitchell also reiterated his request that colleges be “working to provide your prospective students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, with financial aid packages as early as possible." He continued, "I understand that it may be a challenge to balance the twin objectives of providing award packages earlier and not setting earlier priority deadlines that some colleges use to prompt students to apply for state and institutional aid,” Mitchell continued. “One way to address this issue would be to carefully analyze historical trends, making adjustments for anticipated demographic and timing changes, especially the change to the early FAFSA, and adjusting award strategies so that those students with the most need have full access to funds, regardless of when they apply.”

Last week, two organizations released surveys of higher education officials with the goal of providing insight into how the admissions and financial aid cycles may change this year. With Early FAFSA moving the availability of the form to Oct. 1, institutions are debating how this changes the way they can communicate with students, both to give students earlier and more information and to help boost their own recruitment. 

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, a nonprofit association representing the enrollment management field, conducted a survey of its members. With 480 institutions responding, AACRAO found that 69 percent would not change their admissions calendar, and among the rest, the most common shift would be starting outreach activities earlier. A small portion reported that deadlines for admissions or scholarships would be moved forward.

NCAN discourages the shifting of deadlines for the admissions cycle timeline because fall deadlines could harm low-income students who usually find out about deadlines later and are more likely to miss them. AACRAO’s finding that a relatively small portion of colleges plan to move deadlines is welcome news, but a second survey from Cegment Inc., an education technology company, showed a very different result.

According to the Cegment survey, almost 70 percent of schools will provide an earlier financial aid award letter. But earlier letters are only a positive development if institutions can provide them without moving their financial aid deadlines. Only 37 percent of colleges said they will move their admissions deadlines earlier, but it is unclear how that will affect priority financial aid deadlines, which require a completed admissions application.

The results of these two surveys seem somewhat contradictory. It is important to note that the AACRAO survey had a fairly even representation among institutions; it included 243 public colleges and 226 private colleges (plus 11 for-profits). Cegment, on the other hand, had 60 percent of respondents from private institutions, 30 percent from publics, and 10 percent from forprofits.

The type of institution matters, as the Cegment report shows. Highly-selective institutions (and open-enrollment institutions, with their unique mission) are planning fewer changes than their less- or somewhat-selective counterparts. Institutions with some selectively, especially private colleges, are most likely to be tuition dependent and seek a competitive advantage in building their admissions class. 

Cegment Survey - Public College Responses

Cegment Survey - Private College Responses

Cegment also reached out to students and families. Nine in 10 wanted earlier financial aid award packages, and 41 percent said they want those packages before January.

NCAN recommends that priority financial aid deadlines not be earlier than Feb. 1. For low-income students, it is more important to shop around on the front during admissions, applying to a variety of institutions, than to know in December that they have a financial aid package with an unfillable gap in aid.

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