FAFSA Completion Increases Sluggish Nationally in 2018-19 Cycle

July 9, 2018

Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

This post has been updated.

By end of June, the school year has finished across the country. Students turn their attention toward summer plans and graduates to their next steps, whether to college or career. Here at NCAN, the end of June has a big red circle around it because it marks the end of the high school academic year. We have been monitoring high school seniors’ FAFSA completions diligently over the course of this cycle (using the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker).

We wish we could report improvements that were more significant.

Federal Student Aid’s latest release on FAFSA completions, tracked through June 29 shows that overall, an estimated 2,167,338 high school seniors completed a FAFSA this cycle. Nationwide, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that the high school class of 2018 will have 3,558,100 graduates. Dividing this cycle's total completions by this figure, we estimate that 60.9 percent of high school graduates completed a FAFSA. This is a very slight increase from the class of 2017 (60.6%), which in turn was a large increase over the class of 2016 (55.6%).

In the 2018-19 cycle, the number of FAFSA completions from high school seniors increased 1.9 percent, which represents an additional 40,602 completions. For reference, the 2017-18 FAFSA cycle saw a 9 percent increase in completions from high school seniors over the 2016-17 cycle. The 2017-18 cycle was the first to open early in October (rather than January) and to benefit from the use of prior-prior year tax data for FAFSA completion.

Although these figures are, to put it charitably, modest, there are bright spots on which to focus. For example, Louisiana led the way in terms of percentage of high school seniors completing and percent increase in completions. A whopping 25.9 percent more high school seniors (7,778) completed a FAFSA in the current cycle than last, representing an estimated 77.1 percent of seniors completing a FAFSA in the state. Louisiana’s percent increase represents over 19 percent of the entire nation’s increased number of FAFSA completions.

Louisiana’s success this cycle is no doubt a product of a policy change that now requires high school seniors to complete a FAFSA in order to graduate. The college access field, and policymakers both within and outside of Louisiana, now turn their eyes to the postsecondary enrollment outcomes of students from the Bayou State.

Louisiana edged out Tennessee (76.6%) in our estimation of the percentage of high school seniors completing a FAFSA. The District of Columbia (71.4%), Delaware (68.6%), and Massachusetts (67.2%) round out the top five. We estimate that Utah, Alaska, Arizona, Washington, and Colorado saw the lowest percentage of their high school seniors complete a FAFSA.

Other big gainers in cycle-over-cycle performance included Nevada (+10.7%), Rhode Island (+5.8%), Alabama (+4.8%), and Mississippi and Arizona (+4.3%). Conversely, Vermont (-3.5%), Wyoming (-4.2%), Indiana (-4.4%), North Dakota (-5.2%), and Puerto Rico (-9.2%) saw their completions decrease cycle-over-cycle. Puerto Rico no doubt saw its FAFSA completions decrease due in part to the on-going recovery effort from Hurricane Maria.

Worth noting in the state-level estimates above is that they are, indeed, estimates. Federal Student Aid’s high school FAFSA completion data is an excellent resource, but we do not capture all FAFSA completions through using it. For example, FSA suppresses high schools with fewer than five FAFSA completions, and these do not appear in our estimates. Additionally, student age and first-time FAFSA filing status are proxies for high school senior status in the FSA data. Additionally, we are using projections for the headcount of high school seniors by state. All of this is to urge caution in comparing small differences between states’ outcomes; a state’s relative position in the ranking of seniors completing and percent change is likely a better indicator of its performance than the absolute estimates of either of those metrics.

Two factors moderate concerns about this cycle’s apparent FAFSA completion stagnation. First, increases in this year’s cycle were never reasonably going to match those in the last cycle because that cycle benefited from two policy decisions changes that increased the eased in completing the FAFSA and expanding the window in which students could do so. Second, FAFSA completion and college-going are countercyclical to the health of the economy. Given the low national unemployment rate, the relative strength of the American economy is not likely to push prospective students on the margin to enroll.

NCAN prioritizes FAFSA completion through our programming, advocacy, and the Form Your Future campaign. Each year, more than $24 billion of financial aid goes unclaimed, and completing the FAFSA can connect students with the financial support they need to make postsecondary education a reality. The cycle-over-cycle gains in completions this year represent progress for the college access field and for over 40,000 students taking positive action toward a postsecondary education.

To see national, state, city, and school outcomes from the current FAFSA cycle through June 29, visit the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker.


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