7 Ways to Measure the Success of Early FAFSA

February 12, 2016

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

In the scramble to be ready for the switch to early FAFSA starting October 1, it is easy to get immersed in admittedly important planning details. But let’s take a moment to think about what we hope to accomplish. The “big goal” for early FAFSA is to help more low-income students enter and complete a postsecondary credential. What metrics should we use during the next few years to measure our progress toward that goal? NCAN discussed this question with our colleagues from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Advisors, National Association for College Admission Counseling, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Agencies, and the College Board and came up with the suggested list below. 

1. An appreciable number of students actually complete FAFSA between October and December 2016. Approximately 20.6 million U.S. students completed a FAFSA in the 2014-15 filing cycle. For early FAFSA to be a success, we would expect at least a few million students to file “early” this year, especially first-time filers. 

2. More students complete FAFSA for the first time. Because early FAFSA will be easier to complete and better aligned with the timing of many college applications, we hope to see more FAFSAs from high school seniors, especially in low-income high schools, post-traditional students, and students already enrolled in community college but who have never filed a FAFSA. 

3. Families increase use of the IRS data retrieval tool (DRT) to automatically populate tax information required in the FAFSA. During the 2014-15 FAFSA filing cycle, 42 percent of students used the DRT to complete the FAFSA. With early FAFSA, we’d expect to see that percentage increase substantially, especially for dependent students. 

4. The average FAFSA completion time decreases. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the average completion time is 21 minutes. With increased use of the DRT, FAFSA completion times should decrease for many students. 

5. More students complete the FAFSA verification process. With increased use of DRT, fewer students should be selected for verification of income information, although they may be asked to verify other FAFSA items that could be less onerous to answer. This change could increase the percentage of students who make it through the verification process to actual matriculation and receipt of federal aid. 

6. Students list more schools on the FAFSA to receive notice of their federal aid eligibility. One promise of early FAFSA is that students will consider attending a wider range of institutions because they learn about their federal student aid eligibility earlier. For instance, a student who originally lists only their local community college may go back and add a local four-year institution after learning they qualify for a full Pell Grant. 

7. Colleges and universities adapt to the “new normal” of early FAFSA to manage their admission applications, acceptances, aid awards, and yield. The change to early FAFSA is particularly hard on enrollment managers responsible for predicting how many students will apply to and commit to attending their institutions. It will take a couple of years for new patterns of student and institutional behavior to become clear. One measure of early FAFSA’s success will be when the new financial aid timeline feels like an established process, rather than a great unknown, to higher ed administrators as well as college advisors and students. 

Most of these metrics are quantitative; the final one is “I’ll know it when I see it” but no less important to early FAFSA’s success. As part of your planning process, consider how you might apply some these indicators to your own FAFSA completion work at the program or school level to know how well early FAFSA is working in your community.


This blog post is Part 3 in a 3 part series.

Part 1: 6 Things College Advisors Should Know About Early FAFSA

 Part 2: 9 Ways College Advisors Can Make Early FAFSA Successful


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