Dip in FAFSA completion sparks concern

A new analysis from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) shows a significant recent decline in renewals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as in new applications from high-school seniors. As of April 15, FAFSA renewals were down by 4.7 percent, compared to last year’s numbers, meaning that more than 350,000 returning students have declined to renew their FAFSA. In comparison, renewals were down just 2.3 percent as of February 29, signaling that the coronavirus pandemic has quickly stunted FAFSA completion.  

Largest drop-off among lowest-income students

Calling the changes “deeply troubling” and potentially indicative of “students’ uncertainty about how, or whether, to continue on their postsecondary pathways in the fall,” NCAN said the decline has been especially sharp among returning students from the lowest-income families. Around 244,000 fewer students from families earning $25,000 or less annually have renewed their FAFSA for the 2020-21 cycle, amounting to a drop of more than 8 percent among students who would most benefit from receiving financial aid. 

“FAFSA completion is a strong indicator of postsecondary enrollment, so we should carefully monitor FAFSA renewal as a predictor of emerging fall enrollment trends,” NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook said in a statement. June 30 is the deadline to complete the FAFSA for the upcoming school year.

Fewer high-school seniors completing FAFSA

NCAN also called attention to a dip in FAFSA completion among high school seniors, 52 percent of whom had completed a FAFSA by May 1. Education Week points out that “lower-poverty schools are down in FAFSA filings by more than 2 percent from this time last year, while the decline in high-poverty schools is more than 4 percent.” 

Amid school closures, many high school seniors have lost access to the counselors and events that facilitate FAFSA completion. Many families also are facing a new financial landscape or have delayed their tax filing to take advantage of the deadline extension, without realizing they can use past tax returns for the FAFSA. “The kick-the-can game with the federal tax deadline is intended to help, but typically low-income families will use that same information to complete the FAFSA form,” Anne Kress, the president of Northern Virginia Community College, told Education Week. “If they don’t file until July and they try to wait [for the tax information], they’re likely not going to complete that FAFSA form until very, very late.”

Education leaders are looking for ways to encourage students to submit the FAFSA, writes The 74. Former education secretary Arne Duncan recently partnered with the nonprofit Chiefs for Change to urge FAFSA completion, saying in a video that, even amid the pandemic, “we cannot allow this crisis to derail students’ educational progress.” 

Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee echoed that sentiment, saying the organization is encouraging school district leaders to keep FAFSA completion a top priority. “In an environment where families’ economic situations are in many cases dramatically changing for the worse right now, making sure college is affordable for students is critical,” he said. Chiefs for Change, for instance, provided funding to help a North Carolina school district convert 75 school buses into mobile internet hot spots to enable a virtual financial aid event.

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