Survey Data Strengthen Association Between FAFSA Completion and Enrollment

April 4, 2019

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Anyone with a passing familiarity of NCAN’s work knows that FAFSA is a major focus. From the #FormYourFuture campaign to the FAFSA Tracker, NCAN keeps up a drumbeat around getting more students to complete the form that can unlock financial aid. Now, another National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey provides evidence of the connection between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment. Notably: Students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile who completed a FAFSA were 127% more likely to be enrolled in the fall following high school graduation than their counterparts without a FAFSA completion.

Data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:2009) show a strong association between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment in the fall following high school graduation. HSLS:2009 is a nationally representative longitudinal study of more than 23,000 students who started ninth grade in 2009. The students receive a first follow-up in 2012 and a second follow-up in 2016.

When the HSLS checked in with students as of November 2013 (the first fall following on-time high school graduation), they asked whether students had completed a FAFSA. Among students from the graduating class of 2013, 91.5% of students who completed a FAFSA had a postsecondary enrollment as of November 2013, compared to 49.7% of students without a FAFSA completion. This represents an 84% increase in the likelihood of enrollment associated with FAFSA completion.

Note the word “associated;” these analyses are descriptive and correlational, and readers cannot and should not assert causation with these results.

HSLS also allows for the breakdown of results by socioeconomic status (SES) quintiles (i.e., “fifths”). Here, the findings also suggest an association between FAFSA and postsecondary enrollment. Among high school graduates from the class of 2013, 37.4% of students from the lowest SES quintile who did not complete a FAFSA had a postsecondary enrollment in November 2013, compared to 83.8% of students from the highest quintile who did not complete a FAFSA. Contrast these figures with students who did complete the FAFSA: 85% of students from the lowest quintile who completed a FAFSA had a postsecondary enrollment in November 2013, compared to 97.8% of students from the highest quintile who completed a FAFSA. Full results appear in table 1.

Table 1. Percentage of Students With and Without a Postsecondary Enrollment by November 2013, by FAFSA Completion, by Socioeconomic Status Quintile, HSLS:2009

Quintile

Enrolled
(%)

Not Enrolled 
(%)

First (Lowest)

64.4%

35.6%

Completed FAFSA

85.0%

15.0%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

37.4%

62.6%

Second

66.3%

33.7%

Completed FAFSA

87.0%

13.0%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

27.5%

72.5%

Third

77.2%

22.8%

Completed FAFSA

91.0%

9.0%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

49.1%

50.9%

Fourth

82.3%

17.7%

Completed FAFSA

94.5%

5.5%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

51.1%

48.9%

Fifth (Highest)

93.2%

6.8%

Completed FAFSA

97.8%

2.2%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

83.8%

16.2%

Total

77.5%

22.5%

Completed FAFSA

91.8%

8.2%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

51.1%

48.9%

The names of the variables used in this table are: S3APPFAFSA, S3CLGSECTOR and X2SESQ5.

The weight variable used in this table is W3STUDENT.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:2009).

In both cases, enrollment is higher with FAFSA completion. But important for NCAN members who often serve students from low-income families: The findings show that FAFSA completion associates with a narrowing of the postsecondary enrollment gap based on socioeconomic status by about 24 percentage points.

Of particular note, students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile who completed a FAFSA were 127% more likely to be enrolled in the fall following high school graduation than their counterparts without a FAFSA completion.

The HSLS data can also show the association of FAFSA completion with intensity of enrollment (full-time vs. part-time) for those who did enroll. Among students who enrolled by November 2013, 88.2% of students who completed a FAFSA enrolled full-time compared to 69.5% who did not complete a FAFSA. Among enrollers, FAFSA completers were 27% more likely to enroll full-time.

Findings based on SES quintile also hold when examining enrollment intensity:

  • 42.2% of students from the lowest quintile who did not complete a FAFSA enrolled full-time in November 2013, compared to 86.2% of students from the highest quintile who did not complete a FAFSA.
  • 77% of students from the lowest quintile who completed a FAFSA enrolled full-time in November 2013, compared to 96.1% of students from the highest quintile who completed a FAFSA.
  • The above findings show that FAFSA completion narrowed the full-time postsecondary enrollment gap based on socioeconomic status by about 25 percentage points.
  • Full results appear in table 2.

Table 2. Percentage of Enrolled Students by Enrollment Intensity, FAFSA Completion, and Socioeconomic Status Quintile, HSLS:2009

Quintile

Enrolled 
Full-Time
(%)

Enrolled 
Part-Time
(%)

Unknown Enrollment Intensity 
(%)

First (Lowest)

69.6%

18.3%

12.1%

Completed FAFSA

77.0%

15.5%

7.5%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

42.2%

29.8%

28.1%

Second

79.2%

12.0%

8.8%

Completed FAFSA

84.3%

9.8%

5.9%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

59.0%

21.1%

19.8%

Third

82.4%

9.9%

7.6%

Completed FAFSA

87.0%

8.3%

4.7%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

61.0%

19.6%

19.4%

Fourth

87.3%

7.9%

4.8%

Completed FAFSA

91.3%

5.5%

3.2%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

71.4%

16.4%

12.2%

Fifth (Highest)

93.4%

3.8%

2.8%

Completed FAFSA

96.1%

2.4%

1.6%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

86.2%

8.0%

5.8%!

Total

84.0%

9.4%

6.6%

Completed FAFSA

88.4%

7.4%

4.2%

Did Not Complete FAFSA

69.7%

16.2%

4.1%

! Interpret data with caution. Estimate is unstable because the standard error represents more than 30 percent of the estimate.
The names of the variables used in this table are: S3APPFAFSA, S3CLGFT and X2SESQ5.
The weight variable used in this table is W3STUDENT.

HSLS also examines the institutional sectors in which students enrolled. FAFSA completion associates with a substantially increased likelihood of enrolling at a four-year public institution. Students in this quintile who completed a FAFSA were 4.3 times more likely to enroll at such an institution compared to students who did not complete a FAFSA (29% vs. 5%). FAFSA completion also associates with enrolling at community colleges versus not completing a FAFSA; completers were about 85% more likely to enroll at a community college than noncompleters (38% vs. 21%). In all cases, not completing a FAFSA was associated with a much higher likelihood of not enrolling anywhere by November 2013; 63% of FAFSA noncompleters in the lowest SES quintile did not enroll anywhere by November 2013, but just 15% of FAFSA completers did not enroll.

NCAN previously relied on data from another NCES survey for evidence of the association between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment. The Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002) is a nationally representative survey of 10th graders in 2002 and 12th graders in 2004. Data from this survey showed 90% of high school seniors who complete FAFSA attend college directly from high school, compared to just 55% of FAFSA noncompleters. The direction and magnitude of the differences in enrollment associated with FAFSA completion are in line with the HSLS findings reported above, but the HSLS findings also have the benefit of being more recent.

These findings point to a few things. First, they again illustrate the immense value of the NCES data collections. These surveys are a wealth of data and knowledge even if they can also be a little inscrutable and take some work to dig into. (Pro-tip: It always pays to read each variable’s “Get More Info” tab.) Second, the #FormYourFuture campaign makes the case that more schools, communities, and stakeholders should be helping students complete the FAFSA and shows them how best to do that. Given FAFSA completion’s association with postsecondary enrollment, especially for students from low-income families, the HSLS data offer suggestive evidence that supports NCAN’s continued FAFSA focus.

(Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash)



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