Takeaway: FAFSA Tracker 5.0 is here.

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation, National College Attainment Network

Oct. 1 is a major milestone on every college access professional’s calendar because it’s opening day for the new FAFSA cycle. The good news is NCAN’s FAFSA Tracker is back for the fifth consecutive year to help practitioners, policymakers, and the public track high school FAFSA completions at the national, state, city, district, and school levels. The bad news is for the past two FAFSA cycles there have been fewer completions to track.

The nascent 2022-23 FAFSA cycle, which will represent class of 2022 high school seniors, opens on the heels of two consecutive cycles experiencing FAFSA completion declines. By July 2, the high school class of 2021 completed 4.8% fewer FAFSAs than the class of 2020; this represented about 102,000 fewer FAFSA completions and just 53.3% of the senior class. By June 30 of last year, the class of 2020 had about 81,000 fewer FAFSA completions than the class of 2019, representing a 3.7% decline.

Over the summer, it was a tale of two cycles. The class of 2021 slowly clawed back some momentum and rose to -4.2% year-over-year by the end of September. Meanwhile, the class of 2020 declined from -3.7% to -4.2% by Sept. 11 of last year. Neither case is all that encouraging, but all things being equal we’d rather see an upward trend than not.

This all adds up to a sobering reality: 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.

Unfortunately, declines in FAFSA completion have been inequitably distributed, with public high schools serving more students from low-income backgrounds and more students of color seeing fewer FAFSAs completed than their counterparts.

As previously noted, these figures portend a potentially rough postsecondary enrollment landscape for the current fall semester. The catastrophic enrollment declines reported on by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center came on the heels of both a smaller FAFSA completion decline last year and a larger percentage of seniors completing the FAFSA.

Updates to the FAFSA Tracker

Turning toward the current cycle, there are a few changes and additions to the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker:

  • Most notably, the 12th-grade enrollment figures used to calculate the percentage of seniors completing at the national and state levels are now based on data from the 10th edition of Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE)’s Knocking on the College Door report. Previously, these enrollment figures were based on projections from the 9th edition of the report, now they are based on actual reported enrollment headcounts from the states. The update applies to all cycles in the Tracker, and the trendlines in the Compare By Cycle dashboard reflect this.
    • Functionally, this means that most states will see a decline of three to four percentage points in their percent of seniors completing compared to what they might expect. Because high school graduation rates are (and have been) increasing, and schools are getting better at retaining students, the number of 12th-grade students is increasing relative to WICHE’s previous projections. This means denominators are growing, and average completion rates consequently decrease when we’re comparing 9th and 10th edition calculations.
    • A comparison of 9th and 10th edition calculations based on the 2021-22 FAFSA cycle shows that moving to 10th edition data creates a decrease in the percentage of students completing a FAFSA in 48 states. The average decline is 3.2 percentage points.
    • Questions, concerns, and consternation about this change can be directed to me at debaunb@ncan.org
  • The FAFSA Tracker is pleased to add a new dashboard that shows FAFSA completions by district and high school. This dashboard is filterable at the state, city, district, and school levels and shows total completions, by date of the cycle, for the current and previous cycle.
  • Although the Tracker previously showed year-over-year percent change by public high schools’ Title I eligibility, this year we’ve switched that metric to display comparisons between low- and higher-income high schools. We use the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s cutoff of +/- 50% of students on free- or reduced-price lunch to categorize high schools. We made this switch because of a low sample size of Title I-eligible high schools in the National Center for Education Statistics data.

NCAN remains grateful for the enthusiasm we receive about the FAFSA Tracker, and we are pleased to be able to continue to provide and update this valuable tool. Updates will generally come every Friday pending the availability of FAFSA completion data from Federal Student Aid.

Our fingers are crossed that the class of 2022 will break the downward trend in FAFSA completion declines, and we will be monitoring this cycle closely to provide updates and insights periodically.

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