It has been a big and interesting year for NCAN’s favorite(?) form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As the calendar flips over to 2020, it’s worth reflecting back on the biggest FAFSA-related news of 2019 and projecting what might stay on the radar next year. NCAN has a firm belief that federal financial aid can be key to unlocking successful postsecondary pathways, and member programs across the country assist innumerable students and families to complete the form each year.
FAFSA Completions Down for 2019-20 Cycle, Encouraging So Far in 2020-21
The #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, now in its third cycle, is an interactive dashboard that tracks FAFSA completions at the national, state, city, district, and school levels. On June 30, the milestone date NCAN uses to mark the unofficial end of the cycle (it actually continues through to December), there were 10,000 fewer FAFSA completions for the class of 2019 than there had been for the class of 2018, representing a -0.5% year-over-year change. The dip followed a sluggish 1.9% year-over-year gain by the class of 2018 over the class of 2017. Both are discouraging figures.
So far, the 2020-21 FAFSA cycle has more encouraging news. Through Dec. 6, FAFSA completions are up 3%, or roughly 35,000 additional completions. An estimated 32% of seniors from the class of 2020 have already completed a FAFSA. Six states (Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut) and Washington, D.C., have already seen their percentages of seniors completing top 40%.
Throughout the 2020-21 FAFSA cycle (and the year 2020), readers can follow along with the FAFSA Tracker and monitor completions in their jurisdictions and across the country.
FUTURE Act Passes, FAFSA Simplification and Verification Relief on the Way
The end of 2019 had big news on the policy front for financial aid advocates. On Dec. 10, the FUTURE Act passed the House and Senate, and President Trump signed it into law a week later on Dec. 19. The most important parts of the legislation are that it makes permanent funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions. Additionally, the legislation trims the FAFSA by up to 20% of its questions and allows for allow for direct data sharing between federal agencies.
The data sharing between the IRS and the Department of Education should cut back on FAFSA verification, which is especially important for students served by NCAN members. NCAN estimates that being selected for FAFSA verification associates with a 25 percentage-point decrease in the receipt of a Pell Grant for low-income students. Beyond that, half of all Pell Grant-eligible students are flagged each year for verification. Simplifying FAFSA on the front and back ends of the process is great news for students.
Mandatory FAFSA Policies Continue to Generate Interest in the States
Prior to the aforementioned passage of the FUTURE Act, the most talked-about policy trend related to the FAFSA in 2019 was actually at the state, not federal, level. That trend, requiring FAFSA completion for high school graduation, kicked off in Louisiana for the class of 2018. Earlier this year, Louisiana released data showing that the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in postsecondary education the following fall climbed to an all-time high with that class. That announcement, in turn, came on the heels of the news that the high school class of 2018 posted the highest graduation rate in state history.
Since then, Texas and Illinois both passed laws that will require FAFSA completion for high school graduation in the 2021-22 and 2020-21 academic years, respectively. States like California and Indiana have had similar bills introduced in their state legislatures, as has the District of Columbia in its council. A number of other states have contacted NCAN asking about implementing similar principles and policies.
While there is a lot of interest in these policies among the states, their long-term impact remains to be seen. Although the policy greatly increased FAFSA completion within Louisiana, there are downstream effects on postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and completion that are unclear. Worth noting is that postsecondary enrollment data only exist from one high school graduating class from one state. No doubt there will continue to be interest around this topic in 2020.
'Timing Is Everything' When It Comes to FAFSA Filing
Aside from data and policy developments around FAFSA in 2019, there was also some research that contributed to the field’s knowledge base.
In March, CampusLogic released a brief titled “Timing Is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends.” Using its extensive database of student records, CampusLogic examined FAFSA completion across the 2018-19 filing cycle by dependency status, grade level (first-time or returning), adjusted gross income, age, and expected family contribution. Given that some states have only a limited pool of money for grant-based aid programs, disparities in the timing of different student groups’ filing means they might miss out on aid they could have gotten had they filed earlier in the cycle.
The novel data could and should inform policies, state and otherwise, around financial aid moving into 2020 and beyond.
Reminder: Students Can Earn a Chance at a Scholarship for Completing the FAFSA
With the opening of the 2020-21 FAFSA came the opening of another College Board Opportunity Scholarship: students can enter to win $1,000 for completing the FAFSA. The College Board will award 200 “Complete” scholarships every month through December 2019, and 100 scholarships every month in January and February 2020.
The College Board Opportunity Scholarships program guides high school students through six steps of the college planning process. Completing each step earns students a chance to win scholarships of $500 to $2,000 through monthly drawings; doing all six steps also earns them a chance at a $40,000 award. Notably for the NCAN community, College Board has designated at least half of all the scholarships for students whose families earn less than $60,000 per year.