First Look at Early FAFSA Data: Submissions, Completions Are Up

November 8, 2016

This article has been updated from a previous version to correct the state-by-state chart. 

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy, and Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

The overall number of high school seniors completing a FAFSA during its first month of availability increased 21 percent this year over last year, and submissions are up 16 percent, based on data from the FAFSA High School Completion Tool.

This year, the FAFSA for the first time became available three months earlier, in October. These data include the first four weeks of January 2016 (the beginning of the 2016-17 filing cycle) and the first four weeks of October 2016 (the beginning of the 2017-18 filing cycle). The rise in completions and submissions is early evidence that the move to Early FAFSA – which entailed not only making the form available earlier, but allowing applicants to use completed tax returns from two years prior – is proving successful in increasing the number of students who apply for federal student aid. (For the high school graduating class of 2015, just 44 percent of students completed the FAFSA before graduating.)

Click here for a chart of state-by-state FAFSA submission and completion data.

In the 2017-18 cycle, students have submitted an additional 80,343 FAFSAs over this point last year, and have completed an additional 92,142 forms. Submitted FAFSAs are those that are incomplete, often due to a missing signature; a completed FAFSA, on the other hand, allows the student to move forward and receive aid. The overall growth in total FAFSA completion is likely caused by growing comfort with the FSA ID, the username and password system introduced last year that was widely blamed for the increased gap between submissions and completions during last year’s FAFSA filing cycle.

While the overall national news is good, the increases by state do widely vary. The median increase in completions is 34 percent (27 percent for submissions). Completions doubled in 10 states: Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. Submissions also doubled in those states, with the exceptions of Kansas and Utah.

However, completions were down in 11 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. Of those 11, six are the New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The others are Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

California and New Jersey each saw a decline in submissions, but their completion rates stayed flat. Tennessee and Maryland had a decrease in submissions, but completions went up 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Holding steady is great news for Tennessee, given that the state had the highest percentage of high school seniors complete the FAFSA in the last filing cycle — likely because the Tennessee Promise free community college program requires students to complete the application.

Another surprise in the data is the disparity across the group of states known as “first-come, first-served” states. In these places, state financial aid dollars are awarded based on the order in which FAFSAs are received, not on financial need or academic merit. These states always encourage students to apply as soon as possible, before aid dollars run out. Given that earlier is better has always been the mantra in these states, it would be expected that the completion rates would hold steady or increase slightly. However, the changes in these states over last year are all over the board. Alaska and Vermont’s submission rates are down by double-digit percentages, and Washington’s by 9 percent. Illinois and Kentucky saw increases in both categories by a single-digit percentage. North Carolina and South Carolina are up in both categories, well over 50 percent.

This overview is just the first glimpse into the data, and it should be noted that the numbers are not perfect: the FAFSA High School Completion Tool only includes schools with at least five completed FAFSAs, and only counts applications from students who are 18 and younger. This means that in some places, for example Washington D.C. and West Virginia, students are likely undercounted because only 5 percent and 7 percent of schools, respectively, could be included within the data. However, as the FAFSA cycle continues, the number of schools included within the data is expected to increase and align. Additionally, as the reporting is the same for each cycle, comparing year-over-year (rather than looking at raw numbers) does allow us to see directional shifts, particularly as the senior class is predicted to be a bit larger this year than last.

NCAN continues to encourage Federal Student Aid to share reports with advocates, and particularly hopes to receive FAFSA completion rates broken down by income level. If you would like more information about our calculations and the FAFSA completion data, contact Director of Policy and Advocacy Carrie Warick.

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