By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern
Click here for a state-by-state chart of high school FAFSA completion data.
The nation is close to surpassing last year's high school FAFSA completion rates. Data through March 17 show high school seniors nationwide are 9 percent of the way from reaching the total number of FAFSAs completed through June 30, 2016 (a common high school FAFSA completion benchmark). At this point last year, high school FAFSA completion rates were 27 percent away from the final June 2016 count.
Specifically, the nation needs an additional 260,000 high school seniors to complete the FAFSA between March 17 and June 30 in order to surpass the June 2016 benchmark. This seems feasible given that last year, FAFSA completions rose at nearly double that rate — an increase of roughly 480,000 FAFSAs — between March 17 and June 30.
The following graph shows the total high school FAFSA completions in the 2016-2017 filing cycle (left) and the 2017-2018 filing cycle (right) as a percentage of the June 30, 2016 benchmark. The 2016-17 graph shows three important milestones:
- Feb. 17, 2016: Captures this cycle’s initial rush of FAFSA completions. Many high school students who live in states with first-come, first-served state aid file before this date.
- March 17, 2016: Captures the second surge of FAFSA completions. Many high school students who live in states with state aid deadlines up through the middle of March file before this date.
- June 30, 2016: This is a commonly used high school FAFSA completion benchmark because the majority of high school students who complete their FAFSA will do so before this point. This is largely thanks to the extra assistance provided by their school counselors and college access professionals, and because most state aid deadlines (where applicable) have passed by this point.
click to enlarge
The 2017-18 graph also shows these important dates (with the June 30 data point displayed as the percentage remaining to hit the June 30, 2016 benchmark). The graph also shows the percentage of this cycle's FAFSAs completed through Dec. 30, 2016 — all 1.1 million of which were possible thanks to Early FAFSA moving back the application's opening date by three months.
When looking at the March 17 disaggregated state data, it gets even more exciting! Every state is close to meeting its June 2016 benchmark, and 28 states have less than 9 percent to go. Of these states, five have either met or surpassed their benchmark: Idaho (surpassed by one percent); Kentucky (met benchmark); Tennessee (surpassed by two percent); Vermont (surpassed by two percent); and Wyoming (met benchmark).
When compared to last year, all states except for Rhode Island have significantly higher high school FAFSA completion rates. Each of these states are also closer to their June 30, 2016 benchmark than they were at this time last year. (For a state-by-state chart of high school FAFSA completion data, click here.)
The fact that high school FAFSA completion rates continue to rise — despite the IRS data retrieval tool (DRT) suspension that began on March 3 of this year — is a good sign. It demonstrates the diligence of high school counselors and college access professionals in helping students complete the FAFSA.
However, the DRT suspension remains a cause for concern. While it is a barrier for all FAFSA filers, the outage may be an even greater challenge for filers out of high school because independent filers do not have the same network of supports from counselors or access professionals, and while college financial aid advisors and administrators are a great resource, many independent filers do not take advantage of their assistance.
Additionally, independent filers may be less likely to complete the FAFSA early. Currently, data is limited for FAFSA filers who are out of high school. We do know, however, that about half of all FAFSA completions are by independent students. FAFSA Volume Reports show that in the 2016-17 cycle, 48 percent of all FAFSA completions through June 30 were from independent filers. By Dec. 31, 2016, the proportion of independent filers was up to 52 percent.
What is certain and very unfortunate is that late filers will be burdened by the DRT suspension this FAFSA season. While we cannot assess the full effects of the suspension until additional data are available, we must continue to support all students completing the FAFSA in every way possible. (For more information, see NCAN's guidance surrounding how to help students complete their FAFSA without the DRT.)
And now for the big picture: The changes implemented within the 2017-18 FAFSA cycle — despite the DRT hiccup — are encouraging. Many high school students were able to know their financial aid award amount before making on a decision about which college to attend — a big win for Early FAFSA. Additionally, overall FAFSA completions are up, and may be on the way to surpassing last cycle's total completion rates — another win for Early FAFSA and also for allowing access to prior-prior year (PPY) income information.
NCAN will continue to monitor the 2017-18 FAFSA completion progress to see if we not only meet, but surpass the Jun. 2016 benchmark. If you have any questions about NCAN’s High School FAFSA completion data, please contact Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern.