NCAN and FSA Explore Ways to #FixFAFSA on Capitol Hill

October 4, 2017

By Shelbe Klebs, Graduate Policy Intern

“You have no greater friend to FAFSA completion than me,” Dr. A. Wayne Johnson, Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office, told members and others at an NCAN event on Capitol Hill today. He spoke to about 80 attendees who also came to hear about new research about how poverty impacts FAFSA completion, and a panel discussion on the impact of federal financial aid policy changes.

Johnson’s keynote address focused on how FAFSA completion will continue to be important and will only amplify in importance in the near future – echoing his quote in a Tuesday press release stating that FSA’s vision is that “every eligible student in the nation completes the FAFSA.” Johnson also offered his personal thoughts on financial aid and the FAFSA,  including the goals of a more straightforward form, ease of completion, and using 21st-century tools. (Watch the full remarks including a Q&A on NCAN's Facebook page.)  

NCAN hosted the event to discuss the impact of policy changes to the FAFSA. Johnson’s address preceded the release of two papers, An Analysis of the Relationship between School District Poverty and FAFSA Completion in June 2016 and June 2017 and Moving the Needle on FAFSA Completion: How Changes to Federal Financial Aid Policy Can Broaden Access to Higher Education.

Johnson has more than 30 years of experience in the financial services industry and holds a Ph.D. in higher education leadership from Mercer University. A native of Macon, GA, Johnson also has an MBA from Emory University. His experience includes working as a senior executive with TSYS, First Data, VISA, Deloitte, and as Chief Executive Officer for companies in both the banking and information processing sectors. Johnson’s research focus is in the area of student loans, with specific focus on student loan indebtedness decision-making. 

Other speakers at the event discussed FAFSA completion rates in the context of district-level poverty rates documented in NCAN’s new paper. The report finds that in most states, districts with higher rates of poverty have lower FAFSA completion rates. However, higher poverty is associated with slightly higher FAFSA completion rates in six states, such as Tennessee and Oregon. Additionally, FAFSA filing increased from June 2016 to June 2017 in every state by an average of 4 percent across all poverty levels. These positive changes in filing are likely attributable to the FAFSA becoming available to prospective students three months earlier, as well as allowing students and families to rely on prior-prior year tax information.

Students in high-poverty school districts do not complete the FAFSA at the same rate as their lower-poverty counterparts: Large gaps in FAFSA completion rates between wealthy and impoverished school districts do exist between and within states. These gaps mostly remained the same over the course of a year, which shows that more low-income students did file the FAFSA and that the problem was not exacerbated by the changes.

Another NCAN paper, which included case studies and research from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, discussed the impact of Early FAFSA implementation on broadening access to higher education. The overly complicated and out-of-touch college search and financial aid processes can result in some families making poor financial decisions. As we have already seen, the Oct. 1 filing date and the use of prior-prior year tax information can help make filing for financial aid easier for these students and their families. However, according to report author Jeff Selingo, who also moderated a panel at the event, “the changes were beneficial but did not simplify the overall process.” 

From left to right: Heather Durosko, Gena Boling, Rachel Gentry and Jeff Selingo 

Even with declining enrollment, “we’ve seen FAFSA completion rates go through the roof,” said Gena Boling, Associate Director of Financial Aid at the University of Missouri, a NASFAA member.

Rachel Gentry, a former College Adviser with the Carolina College Advising Corps and current graduate student at the University of Maryland, said that in 2016 she met with 100 of 300 seniors in the two weeks leading up the FAFSA priority deadline. In 2017, many filed earlier and she only had to meet with about 20 students leading up to the deadline, giving her more time to devote to each individual.

“This really didn’t cause a massive colossal fallout like a lot of people maybe were expecting,” said Heather Durosko, NACAC's Assistant Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Continued simplification of the FAFSA beyond the recent changes could help increase FAFSA completion rates, and alleviate the anxiety surrounding college admissions and costs. By June 30, the traditional end of the academic year, the number of FAFSAs filed by seniors increased by 9 percent in the 2017-18 cycle. In addition, the first year with the new filing date resulted in three key developments that could already be benefiting students and their families:

  1. The new date allowed counselors and advisors to begin conversations about financial fit at the same time they were creating an initial list of schools with students. 
  2. Some higher education institutions reconsidered long-standing approaches to the traditional admissions calendar. 
  3. The changes to the financial aid timetable encouraged colleges to set their cost of attendance earlier than in past years. 

Even with these developments, the full impact of the federal policy changes will not be clear for at least another year or two. Early progress and evidence shows that policy changes can help students, but there's more work to be done.

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