Takeaway: We sifted through the large quantities of data that Federal Student Aid released about the 2018-19 and 2019-20 FAFSA cycles to identify five key trends.

By Raymond AlQaisi, Policy and Advocacy Manager, National College Attainment Network

After five years of declining total filers for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the 1% year-over-year increase in filers during the 2017-18 cycle was a bright spot for FAFSA completion. With the release of data on the demographics of FAFSA filers for the two most recent completed FAFSA cycles – 2018-19 and 2019-20 – it is now possible to examine whether the upward trend in FAFSA completion continued. Unfortunately, the two most recent FAFSA cycles demonstrate a return to overall declines in FAFSA filing.

FAFSA completion is a strong indicator of intended and eventual postsecondary enrollment. While the Great Recession prompted many to enroll (or re-enroll) in higher education, it was expected that the uptick in college-going might level out, since the recovery years had a relatively stronger economy and lower unemployment. As predicted, FAFSA filing dropped in all but one of the eight years following the recession.

Notably, positive changes to the FAFSA process contributed to the 2017-18 bump in overall completion. First, the use of prior-prior year tax information on the FAFSA meant that applicants could use already filed taxes from a year earlier. Secondly, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) began offering the FAFSA form three months sooner: on Oct. 1 rather than Jan. 1.

For the 2017-18 cycle, the roughly 1% increase in FAFSA completions represented over 228,000 additional filers.

However, as you can see in the chart below, new data for two recent cycles show a steady but continued decrease in FAFSA filing – both at a rate of -2% over the previous year. Note that these FAFSA cycles have minimal overlap with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We sifted through the large quantities of data that Federal Student Aid released about the 2018-19 and 2019-20 FAFSA cycles. Based on our analysis, here are five key FAFSA trends for the college access and success field, policymakers, and other education leaders.

1. More FAFSA filers are using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

The latest data show that a larger percentage of FAFSA filers are using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to transfer financial information to their application. As the chart below shows, roughly half (52%) of FAFSA filers used the DRT in the two most recent cycles. The DRT makes the FAFSA process much simpler and reduces the likelihood that FAFSA filers will be selected for verification, the audit-like process of proving that information included on a FAFSA is accurate.

Unfortunately, data for the 2017-18 cycle was omitted here because during the peak of the FAFSA filing season there was a security breach that prompted the IRS to remove the Data Retrieval Tool option from the FAFSA.

A larger uptake in DRT usage is an encouraging development, as it reduces the time needed to complete the FAFSA and eases the process for students. It also demonstrates the value of the FUTURE Act, passed into law in December 2019. When implemented fully for the 2024-25 academic year, the FUTURE Act will allow all FAFSA filers to use an improved version of IRS data transfer.

2. FAFSA completion is down among filers of all ages.

The chart below shows that, up until the two most recent cycles, the trends in FAFSA filing tracked very closely between filers of different ages. As filing decreased among younger filers, it decreased at a very similar rate for older filers.

FAFSA filing was down for all age groups for the past two cycles, but the “19-24” and “25 and up” age groups experience a more acute decline in the 2018-19 cycle. The “18 or less” age group experienced a second year of small increase in 2018-19, but then a more parallel decline to the older age groups in the 2019-20 cycle.

Note that these age groups are based on the birthdate filers report on the FAFSA and are not directly comparable to NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which reports on high school seniors who complete the FAFSA. Multiple factors are used to filter for high school seniors in data reporting, and the FAFSA does not ask applicants about their high school graduation year.

3. First-generation students make up a smaller share of FAFSA completers.

The new data show that, over time, students who are first in their families to attend college are comprising a lesser share of FAFSA completers. These results by themselves are not sufficient to draw alarming conclusions. This trend may be driven by changes in demographics – i.e., as a greater share of Americans have attained a college degree, fewer postsecondary students will be defined as the first in their families to attend higher education.

Nevertheless, first-generation students represent nearly half of filers (i.e., potential college-goers) and are a significant student population for education stakeholders to consider in efforts to raise college attainment rates.

4. FAFSA filers are listing more higher education institutions on their aid applications.

NCAN members, such as the College Advising Corps, recommend that students list at least four schools on the FAFSA to broaden their postsecondary options. Positively, the recent data show that this approach is becoming more prevalent.

The past few FAFSA cycles show a considerable increase in the percentage of freshmen who are filing their application to four or more institutions – and relatedly an apparent decrease in the percentage filing to one institution. The FAFSA process changes of prior-prior year tax data and a longer period to file the aid form coincide with more students filing their FAFSA to more institutions. These data show success in that students are considering more options for college enrollment.

Once we have data for FAFSA cycles impacted by the pandemic, this trend will be one to follow. If more students are only listing one institution, it could mean they are perhaps overlooking match or fit in their college search or have other considerations, such as attending an institution closer to home.

5. Federal COVID relief funds can be used to support FAFSA completion.

Given these trends, FAFSA completion should be a top priority for education leaders. NCAN recommends that states and school districts use recently distributed federal COVID-19 response funding to support FAFSA completion.

In total, Congress has appropriated more than $190 billion in aid to K-12 education to provide relief, promote recovery, and prevent learning loss. Considering the federal government spends about $80 billion annually on elementary and secondary education, these funds represent a massive investment and commitment to students and schools.

They also represent a tremendous opportunity to provide students with support that can keep them on the pathway to postsecondary education. K-12 districts and schools are permitted to use these funds broadly, and NCAN’s sincere hope is that many local education agencies will invest these funds in college and career readiness activities.

NCAN’s community-based organizations and nonprofit members should make themselves readily available to provide supports wherever possible.

Please see these NCAN resources for more information: Blog: K-12 and CBOs Should Use Federal Funding to Spur Partnerships, Help Students and Webinar: How CBOs Can Leverage ARP Funds to Support Students.

Author’s note: The data analysis and charts herein are based on NCAN’s calculations, using the “FAFSA Data by Demographic Characteristics” Cycle reports – data available via the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid. (Data accessed in June 2021.)

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