FAFSA Completions Up After Four-Year Decline

July 11, 2017

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy

Download state-specific FAFSA completion and FAFSA submission charts.

Reversing a four-year decline in Free Application for Federal Student Aid filing, FAFSAs filed by all applicants through June 30 are up 6 percent over last year. For high school seniors -- the primary target of a new policy to open the FAFSA three months earlier, in October instead of January -- the number of FAFSAs filed increased 9 percent. This improvement brought the FAFSA completion rate for the high school class of 2017 to 61 percent, up five percentage points from the 56 percent logged by the class of 2016. 

This FAFSA cycle also marked the first time applicants filed using tax information from two years ago, called prior- prior-year income data (PPY), easing the process by allowing applicants to rely on already completed tax returns rather than estimating information. Overall, these increases are concrete evidence that allowing students to file the FAFSA earlier and use PPY resulted in more students seeking federal financial aid.

For all applicants, including students of any age applying for financial aid for the first time as well as enrolled college students renewing their aid applications for the next year, the nation has been on a four-year decline since filings peaked in 2012-13. This year’s FAFSAs filed through June 30 are shown in the table below: The total number of FAFSAs filed is up six percentage points up over last year, and is three percentage points higher than two years ago. Given the strong economy, the growth in FAFSA filing is a strong sign that individuals are turning to higher education and financial aid to pursue their goals.

2017-2018 data received from the Office of Federal Student Aid on July 7, 2017

Each FAFSA cycle has traditionally opened Jan. 1, but the 2017-18 filing cycle was the first ever to open on Oct. 1. While the previous cycles represent six months of filing (January through June), rather than nine (October through June), comparing annual filing results through June 30 is valuable because most students file FAFSAs by that date, given the alignment with the traditional academic calendar’s fall start. Students can continue to apply for financial during the 2017-18 academic year through June 30, 2018, so these data serve as a pulse check during a crucial point in the filing cycle.

June 30 also is the end of the traditional window for high school graduations. A high school student who completes the FAFSA is 63 percent more likely to attend a college, and doing so before graduation means the student is more likely to have support from a college access advisor or school counselor and to be thoughtful about where to apply to college. For this reason, NCAN measures completion rates for states through June 30.

In addition to the number of FAFSAs filed by high school seniors increasing 9 percent, or by 179,476 individual FAFSAs, the average as well as mean increases across states were also 9 percent. The National Center of Education Statistics anticipates 3,510,330 high school graduates this year, a one-tenth of 1 percent increase over last year’s 3,505,920 graduates. Visit NCAN’s continually updated National FAFSA Completion for High School Seniors page for historical reference points and methodology notes.

How Did Individual States Fare?

Download state-specific FAFSA completion and FAFSA submission charts.

Forty-nine states and Washington, D.C. all saw an increase in the number of FAFSAs filed during the 2016-17 academic year when compared against total filings during the 2015-16 academic year. Utah had the highest overall increase, at 33 percent, Wyoming came in at second with 22 percent, and Florida was third with 19 percent. Because most states have not yet posted their graduate numbers for 2017, it is difficult to estimate a specific FAFSA filing rate for the high school class of each state.

It is possible that some states will show a relatively small increase because their already-high FAFSA completion rates left them less room to grow. Tennessee, for example, saw a below-average increase (7 percent), but that growth is notable considering it already had the highest FAFSA completion rate for seniors the last two years running  (70 percent last year). As the first state in the nation to introduce a free community college program including a requirement that students filing a FAFSA, Tennessee has produced reliably high FAFSA completion rates for the last few years.

On the other end, some states with lower historical FAFSA completion or tremendous population growth will see far higher increases in their overall rates.

Rhode Island for example experienced a 7-percent decline in the number of high school seniors in public school settings, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Education. It was the only state to not show growth in the total number of FAFSAs filed this year, but beating last year’s total was a tough goal given that Rhode Island already had a high FAFSA completion rate and a shrinking class of seniors. Rhode Island has been in the top five states for the rate of FAFSA filing among its high school graduates for at least the past two years.

Andrew Bramson, President and CEO of NCAN member College Crusade of Rhode Island, offered his take on this year's results: "Rhode Island has been a national leader in FAFSA completion thanks to the many public-private collaborations that exist in our state. As Rhode Island continues to see slower population growth, it is essential that we redouble our efforts to improve in all aspects of FAFSA outreach and completion, especially in working with low-income and first-generation students."

The state of Florida, on the other hand, has a high school senior class that is larger this year than last. In its public schools alone, the pool of students increased by 3 percent, or just over 5,000 individuals. However, the state’s seniors still filed an impressive 17,000 more FAFSAs this year than last. NCAN member Florida College Access Network led one effort to increase completion in the Sunshine State: the Florida FAFSA Finish Line statewide competition for high schools.

FCAN Executive Director Laurie Meggesin said, “Florida’s increase is testament to the hard work that schools, districts, communities and organizations across the state have devoted to ensure all our students have an affordable pathway to college.  We are grateful to the many counselors, financial aid advisors, and volunteers who helped make this accomplishment possible — and to the local college access networks whose dedication to boosting FAFSA completion made a big difference in their communities.”

Orange County Public Schools received an award for “Most Improved” district in the state as part of the Florida FAFSA Finish Line competition. Superintendent Barbara Jenkins leads the eighth-largest district in the country and said she was “very pleased” about the boost that led Florida to see the third-largest filing increase nationwide. “It is the result of an intense focus on student achievement by our college and career counselors in every high school and the commitment of our principals and staff to lead our students to success,” she said.

In partnership with The Kresge Foundation, NCAN is also hosting the FAFSA Completion Challenge, which awarded 22 cities in 19 states competitive grants to increase FAFSA completion among local high school seniors. Of the 10 states with the largest percentage increase in FAFSAs filed so far this cycle, five include Completion Challenge cities: Wyoming, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Alabama.

NCAN long advocated for the move to using prior- prior-year income, which the Obama Administration set in motion in 2016 when it announced the FAFSA would soon launch in October. As NCAN chronicled throughout the 2016-17 academic year, students proceeded to file earlier than ever before, with more than 1 million high school students completing the FAFSA before it was even available in years prior. These earlier filers all knew their eligibility for federal financial aid before most college application deadlines, which helped to achieve the goal of students having earlier information about their aid. The June 30 data demonstrate that these policy changes benefitted all students via increased FAFSA filing for high school seniors, adult students, and returning students. These additional requests for financial aid represent a crucial step in bringing the country toward the goals set nationally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Lumina Foundation, and governments and organizations in dozens of states to see a higher proportion of the population obtain a higher education degree or credential.

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