FAFSA completion rates edge closer to pre-pandemic levels

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completions were up 4.6% year-over-year as of July 1, suggesting a rebound after “two years of gloomy news” around FAFSA filings, according to a new report from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). Using data from the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker, the NCAN report finds that 52.1% of the class of 2022 completed FAFSA applications, higher than the rates from 2020 (51.3%) and 2021 (49.8%), but still slightly below 2019’s pre-pandemic rate of 53.8%. 

Experts say the 2022 numbers reflect a confluence of factors. High schools’ return to in-person college and career advising services likely increased completion while a hot labor market was luring some students away from college enrollment. Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at NCAN, tells Politico that “for some students, when starting wages are so high right now, they may think to themselves, ‘I’m gonna delay it for a semester or a year.'”

Related: Drop in FAFSA renewals shows lingering college retention problems >

Rise in applications among low-income students, students of color

NCAN attributes much of this year’s FAFSA completion gains to rebounding completion among low-income students and students of color, who were disportionately affected by the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced the largest drops in FAFSA filings in the last two years. However, with schools moving closer to pre-pandemic operations, these students were able to reconnect with counselors and advising services. 

Among students who attend low-income public schools, where a majority of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, FAFSA completion rates rose by 9.1% over the previous year. Students at higher-income schools, in comparison, had a 2.2% increase in completions. Completion rates also rose 9% in schools where 40% of the population is Latinx or Black, compared to a 1.5% increase at schools with smaller shares of Black and Latinx students. 

Related: Colleges work to address students’ learning loss since COVID-19 >

Universal FAFSA policies appear to drive gains

Most U.S. states posted increases in FAFSA completions this year, with only 11 states recording a year-over-year decline. For the fifth year in a row, Tennessee and Louisiana (which have robust FAFSA completion efforts) had the highest percentage of FAFSA completions. 

Texas and Alabama—which for the first time this academic year mandated that high school students complete their FAFSA forms before they graduate—ranked first and second in the nation, respectively, for the largest percentage changes year-over-year. Texas students submitted 49,072 additional applications this year, an increase of 25.9% over the previous year. In Alabama, FAFSA completion rose by an additional 6,326 applications or 24.9% compared to last year. For DeBraun, Texas’s and Alabama’s increased FAFSA completion rates are “pretty clear evidence that universal FAFSA policies really do increase the number of FAFSAs completed in a state.” 

Related: Spring data show 5th straight semester of enrollment declines >

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