Seniors' FAFSA Completions Jump 10% When Counting 19-Year-Olds

July 31, 2017

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

The 2017-18 FAFSA filing season was a whirlwind full of changes: from the launch of Early FAFSA to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) outage and its repercussions, this year has kept college access professionals on their toes. Not only were FAFSA timelines and processes changed, the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) also changed the way it counts FAFSA completions in its FAFSA Completion by High School tool to include 19-year-olds. 

This change resulted in a 10-percent increase in the number of high school seniors who completed the FAFSA by June 30, 2017, or an additional 192,161* completers. Similarly, when the change was applied retroactively to 2016 and 2015, national FAFSA completion rates increased by 9 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

The graph below shows the impact of adding 19-year-olds to the data. Note how regardless of whether 19-year-olds are included in the data, there is a significant increase in FAFSA completion from 2016 to 2017. Overall, high school FAFSA completion increased 9 percent nationwide, both when counting 19-year-olds and when not counting them. This significant change speaks to the great efforts that college access professionals have put forth this year — despite all of its challenges.

So, what is the importance of including 19-year-olds within high school FAFSA completion data? In a nutshell, the data are more accurate. As Director of Policy and Advocacy Carrie Warick explained, “FSA moved back the birthday cutoff to include some 19-year-olds in response to feedback from the field arguing that the 18-year-old cutoff under-counted FAFSA completions. (FSA declined to tell NCAN the exact birthday cutoff and which 19-year-olds are still excluded from the data.)”

Despite the latter uncertainty, college access professionals seem to agree that the high school FAFSA completion data now more accurately counts high school seniors who filed the form. 

NCAN member Florida College Access Network (FCAN), was a strong advocate for including 19-year-olds in the data. FCAN Associate Director for Research & Policy Troy Miller explained why: “We had heard repeatedly from school counselors and college advisors around the state that the numbers [from FSA] featured on our Florida FAFSA Completion Dashboard looked low … After brainstorming with a district/partner the cause for lower completions, we looked again at FSA’s methodology and decided to look more closely at the age definition [excluding] students turning 19 before the end of the school year. Our partner looked at student-level data for several schools in their district and noticed there were a lot of students that fit this criteria.”

Florida college access professionals were right about the numbers looking low. When capturing previously uncounted for 19-year-old high school seniors in the June 30, 2017 data, the number of FAFSAs completed rose by 15 percent. This is among the highest in the country (behind Oklahoma at 19 percent and South Dakota at 16 percent, and on par with Alaska and Louisiana, which also sit at 15 percent). For a state-by-state chart of the effects of adding 19-year-olds to the Jun. 30, 2017 FAFSA completion data, see here.

Many organizations, especially NCAN and our members like FCAN, use FSA data to raise awareness about FAFSA completion and to monitor their own completion efforts. Accordingly, when these data were updated mid-filing season to include 19-year-olds, there was concern that data analyses would not be accurate because FAFSA completion benchmarks and goals for this filing season were set based on data comprising 18-year-olds only.

But rest assured: An apples-to-apples comparison is still possible. Thanks to FSA, all high school FAFSA completion data — including historical data — was updated to include 19-year-olds. Additionally, FSA has uploaded monthly 18-year-old Completion Report Archives, making it possible for organizations, high schools, districts and states to complete a true analyses of their progress based on the previously set benchmarks.

“We’ve received positive feedback from our partners since the change,” Miller said. “Not simply because their numbers are ‘higher,’ but because the counselors/advisors take pride in having the fruits of their labor properly reflected in the data that has been made public. This has become increasingly important, as accountability measures within the school/district and among communities on this topic have risen.”

*Data do not include Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories within national totals, in accordance with FSA’s FAFSA demographics report.

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