9 Things to Know About the Timing of FAFSA Filing

May 1, 2019

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

When it comes to FAFSA data, at least two things are true. First, we really like FAFSA data over here at NCAN and are always looking for new ways to share it. (If you somehow haven’t checked out our #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker yet, you really should.) Second, there are only so many public sources of FAFSA data out there, and although we squeeze insights out of what is available, there are often questions we still can’t answer.

recent report from CampusLogic contributes to answering a number of those questions, mostly around how the timing of FAFSA filing varies by filers’ characteristics using a data set of 2.4 million students from the 2018-19 FAFSA cycle (2017-18 academic year).

The report, titled “Timing Is Everything,” notes in part that, “When students file the FAFSA can be just as important as if they do, particularly where nonfederal grant aid is concerned. Many state grant programs and institutional scholarships utilize FAFSA data, but these programs can also have fixed application deadlines or dispense funds on a first-come, first-served basis until resources have been depleted.”

Some of the characteristics the report considers include independent versus dependent students, for independent students whether this is their first enrollment or whether they were previously enrolled, parents’ adjusted gross income (AGI) by quintile, student age, and expected family contribution (EFC).

There is a lot to unpack in this relatively new brief (circa March), but here are nine insights, statistics, and remaining questions that are relevant for the college access and success field:

  1. Dependent students with parents in the lowest AGI quintile filed later than students with parents in the highest AGI quintile. The report notes “dependent students whose parents reported being in the highest AGI quintile submitted the highest percentage of FAFSAs each month between October 2017 and January 2018,” but students with parents in the lowest AGI quintile submitted the highest percentage of FAFSAs from April 2018 to October 2018. This is likely emblematic of lower-income students’ higher propensity either to decide later whether to matriculate at all or decide to matriculate to a community college. This trend is a problem in some states because these students from lower-income families may miss access to “first-come, first-served” state aid programs.

  2. “Dependent students whose families reported being in the bottom AGI quintile accounted for only 18 percent of all the FAFSAs submitted in October 2017, but 23 percent of those submitted in June 2018.” This also speaks to the analysis in No. 1 and is suggestive of the information gaps that the college access field works to combat. Submitting and completing a FAFSA provides access to financial aid that can make postsecondary education possible for low-income students; that so many of them are waiting until very late into the cycle may reduce access to state and institutional aid but is also suggestive of these students’ tendency not to have concrete postsecondary plans (which would have necessitated earlier filing). Prior-prior year FAFSA reporting and the early FAFSA should hopefully keep pushing more of these students to file closer to the October 1 opening date.

  3. Independent students with a $0 EFC submitted a higher percentage of FAFSAs earlier in the cycle than other independent students. This is encouraging and may speak to these students’ understanding of the importance of financial aid for their continued postsecondary enrollment. But if that hypothesis were true, we would not expect to see…

  4. Dependent students with a $0 EFC submitted a higher percentage of FAFSAs later in the cycle than dependent students in other EFC groups. So the timing of low-EFC students’ FAFSA filing remains something of a mystery for now.

  5. Independent and dependent students’ filing timing differed. Although about 80 percent of dependent students submitted a FAFSA before April 1, more than half of independent students filed after March 1.

  6. First-year, first-time dependent students submitted 76 percent of their FAFSAs before February 1. Contrast this with 36 percent of first-year, first-time independent students. The difference is stark and suggests there is another variable that may be intervening here.

  7. “Older dependent and independent students submit FAFSAs later in the aid year than younger students.” Eighty percent of students 18 and younger submitted a FAFSA prior to February 1, 2018, but almost one-third of students over age 30 submitted after May 1, 2018. First-come, first-served state aid programs may be missing a number of older, returning students as a consequence of these students’ filing timing.

  8. 25 percent of all dependent students submitted a FAFSA in the first month of the cycle. NCAN recently wrote about new data that suggest a strong association between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment. Completing a FAFSA is a leading indicator of students’ intent to enroll in postsecondary education (or at least consider doing so), which means a statistic like first-month filing is one NCAN hopes to see increase over time. Given disparate rates of postsecondary enrollment by family income, it is unsurprising to see dependent students from the highest AGI quintile constituting the highest percentage of early filers; for these students, postsecondary enrollment is the norm and information barriers are lower. Firming up the early FAFSA filing rates of students from lower AGI quintiles would suggest progress in helping underrepresented students access postsecondary education like their better-resourced peers.

  9. A number of questions remain that this data set could help to answer. How do these figures change based on the type of institution to which students are matriculating? Can the CampusLogic data set shine some light on the black box that is FAFSA verification and the myriad questions that surround that process? Within states, especially those with finite state-based grant programs, can we examine the filing timing by student income and dependency and estimate whether these funds are being well-targeted to the students who most need them?

CampusLogic, is a company that caters to postsecondary institutions by offering them products that facilitate business processes like communicating award letters, simplifying financial aid (and triaging students’ more complex financial aid questions), scholarship management, price comparison, campus analytics, and more. Thanks to them for this report, we look forward to seeing more out of their promising data set.

(Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash)

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