By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation, National College Attainment Network
- Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to access federal grants and loans, as well as many types of state and institutional financial aid.
- By July 2, the high school class of 2021 completed 4.8% fewer FAFSAs than the class of 2020. In other words, about 102,000 fewer seniors completed a FAFSA this year.
- An estimated 53.3% of the class of 2021 completed a FAFSA by July 2.
- Across the classes of 2020 and 2021, more than a quarter-million fewer seniors completed a FAFSA than we would have expected, due to the pandemic.
- Schools with higher concentrations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds saw greater declines in FAFSA completion.
- These figures could indicate more enrollment declines for fall 2021. Last year’s catastrophic enrollment declines came on the heels of a smaller FAFSA completion decline.
We warned that FAFSA completion would be bad because we knew it would be bad, and in the end: it’s bad.
The end of June is an important milestone for understanding a high school graduating class’s progress toward Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion. Through July 2 this year, the closest date we have to June 30, the high school class of 2021 completed 4.8% fewer FAFSAs than the class of 2020; this amounts to about 102,000 fewer FAFSA completions. An estimated 53.3% of the class of 2021 completed a FAFSA by July 2, down 2.5 percentage points from last year.
NCAN tracks FAFSA completion data through the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker, updated weekly from Oct. 1 to June 30 and monthly over the summer.
In terms of year-over-year completions, the class of 2021 has trailed the class of 2020 all cycle. Things hit rock bottom at the end of November when the decline hit a whopping -16.8%. Since then, the class of 2021 clawed its way to within 5% but only after a very slow trudge to the finish line; the class of 2021 clawed back just 1.3% between April 23 and July 2.
It is possible that the class of 2021 could continue to close the gap over the summer; time will tell.
By June 30 of last year, the class of 2020 had about 81,000 fewer FAFSA completions than the class of 2019. The class of 2021 had about 190,000 fewer FAFSA completions compared to 2019. Across the classes of 2020 and 2021, more than a quarter-million fewer seniors completed a FAFSA than we would have expected absent the pandemic.
These figures portend a potentially rough postsecondary enrollment landscape for the fall 2021 semester. The catastrophic enrollment declines reported on by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center came on the heels of a smaller FAFSA completion decline last year (-3.4%) and a larger percentage of seniors completing the FAFSA (55.8%).
Just like the postsecondary enrollment declines above, decreases in FAFSA completion were inequitably distributed, and students of color and students from low-income backgrounds were more negatively affected.
Among Title I-eligible public high schools, which enroll higher proportions of students from low-income backgrounds, FAFSA completions declined 6.5% compared to 3.7% for non-Title I-eligible public high schools.
For schools with more than 40% Black and Hispanic students, the decline was 8.1% compared to 2.2% in schools with less Black and Hispanic enrollment.
Public high schools in cities (-6.6%) and small towns (-7%) declined the most, followed by schools in rural places (-5.5%) and suburban high schools (-4.2%).
Beyond the national landscape, the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker also considers state-level performance. Looking at the top five states by percent of the senior class completing offers some familiar faces. Louisiana (73.7%) reclaimed the top spot from Tennessee (71.6%) with Washington, D.C. (66.0%), Illinois (65.7%), and New Jersey (64.3%) rounding out the top five.
Illinois is the only newcomer to that top five this year, and it also very impressively makes an appearance to the top five by year-over-year change because it finished up 5% compared to last year. Puerto Rico (+5.6%), Wyoming (+5%), and South Dakota (+2%) are the only other states or territories with more FAFSA completions this year than last, which paints a dismal picture of performance nationally.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Two things are true at this point. First, it isn’t too late for students to complete a FAFSA for the 2021-22 academic year and to pursue a postsecondary pathway this fall. Second, college-going isn’t like a light switch, and students who have not completed key college-going milestones by now or who don’t over the summer will be less likely to pursue and complete a postsecondary pathway.
States are, and have been, stepping in to spur FAFSA completion. Consider chatbots like Arizona’s Benji and Washington’s Otterbot. Other states like Michigan have included FAFSA completion as priorities in statewide plans.
NCAN members and the school districts they work with and adjacent to have a role to play as well. The Washington Post covered some of the creative approaches employed last year. NCAN also maintains a robust FAFSA Resource Library that is free to the public.
So much is different about this point in time in the United States compared to the same time last year. Vaccines are spurring a return to normalcy. Infection and death rates are both, thankfully, down. Still, consider what I wrote on the NCAN blog a year ago:
“Even in a ‘normal’ year, students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds need moral and technical support to complete key milestones toward a postsecondary pathway; it will take a tremendous and concerted effort from K-12, postsecondary, and community-based stakeholders to assist these students. There is still sizable uncertainty about what the fall will look like on college campuses (or in virtual classrooms) across the country. NCAN members can help students navigate that certainty and stay on the pathway toward postsecondary attainment.”
Given the declines experienced by the class of 2021, all of the above remains painfully, urgently true. We still have a lot of work to do.