If We’re Lucky, This FAFSA Cycle Will Keep Pace with Last Year’s

March 26, 2019

By BillDeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

FAFSA completion trends for the 2019-20 academic year have been anemic all cycle, and now it looks like the best that stakeholders can hope for is to match last cycle’s total number of completions.

Using the #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, NCAN examines FAFSA completion trends at the national, state, city, district, and school levels. Through March 8 – a date that is important because it encompasses California’s March 2 priority deadline – the total number of FAFSAs completed by the high school class of 2019 is 1,797,900, compared to 1,798,378 through this point last year.

Given the way this cycle started with a -10.2 percent decline in first week completions, we should perhaps be grateful to have climbed back up to parity. The charts below show year-over-year percent change for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 cycles through March 7 and 8, respectively. 2018-19 started out strong and slowly gave ground over the course of the cycle, but 2019-20 has never had more than three percent completions in a given week than its predecessor did. A mid-January “spike” of one percentage point excepted, the current cycle has basically kept pace with last year’s since the end of November.

It is fair to ask which external factors would spur the hoped-for increase in FAFSA completions. Certainly the launch of the FAFSA mobile app is one, but data on that method’s usage rate will not be available until much later this year. Beyond that, there is not a big change that we would expect would drive FAFSA completion up (e.g., introduction of early FAFSA, prior-prior year, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, etc.) That said, given the correlation between completing a FAFSA and immediate enrollment in college and the amount of money students leave on the table each year, the national goal should be to increase the number of completions each year, not stagnate.

The FAFSA Tracker considers two scenarios for FAFSA completion: percent change year-over-year and the percent of seniors completing a FAFSA. (The 12th grade enrollment estimates are for students in public and private schools and come from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education [WICHE]). Pivoting to look at percentage of seniors completing is not any more optimistic than its counterpart scenario.

Through March 8, just an estimated 47.2 percent of seniors nationally have completed a FAFSA. There are still 12 states whose seniors’ FAFSA completion rate is below 40 percent (though a number of them will cross that threshold in the coming weeks). Last year, through June 30, 57.4 percent of seniors completed a FAFSA, so the nation still has work to do to meet or exceed that number.

Middling national numbers aside, there are some standout states in this cycle. Utah (+10.5 percent), Rhode Island (+9.3 percent), and Texas (+8.2 percent) are leading the way by increasing the number of FAFSAs completed over last year; Puerto Rico (+4.9 percent) and Nevada (+3.2 percent) round out the top five. Puerto Rico, notably, put up some gaudy percent change figures earlier on in the cycle, due in part to the crippling effect Hurricane Maria had on their numbers last year, but their percent change has returned to earth a bit since then.

By percent of seniors completing, Tennessee (74.7 percent) is outpacing the rest of the top five, which includes Massachusetts (58.7 percent), Washington, D.C. (58.2 percent), Rhode Island (57.7 percent), and Louisiana (57.5 percent). Recall that Louisiana is the only state in the nation that requires FAFSA completion for high school graduation.

NCAN has monitored this cycle and reported on its progress via Twitter since October, but now with most priority deadlines having passed, it is clear that a significant step forward in total completions is highly unlikely. Indeed, the nation will now be fortunate to see total FAFSA completions match last cycle’s. The takeaway here is that despite the steady drumbeat around FAFSA completion and NCAN members’ emphasis on it for the students and communities they serve, significant work remains.

Continue to follow your state, city, district, or school’s progress using the FAFSA Tracker, and stay tuned to NCAN through all of our various media for ongoing updates about this cycle and for strategies about spurring FAFSA completion.

Tweet: Dynamic Duo Helps Detroit Students Get Degrees: https://ctt.ac/rz405+ via @collegeaccess

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