Federal Data Change Shows Additional FAFSA Completions

April 25, 2017

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

Education data geeks and FAFSA advocates, brace yourselves – the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid has changed the way it counts FAFSA completions in the FAFSA Completion by High School tool. The data now include 19-year-olds, both in the newly released April 14, 2017 completion counts and in previous counts from the 2016-17 filing cycle, and show FAFSA completions in both years are higher than previously reported.

This change results in an increase of 9 percent in the number of 2016 high school seniors nationwide who filed their FAFSA by June 30 of last year. That accounts for an additional 167,785 FAFSAs that were filed by the 2016 class but previously not in the data. Individual states all saw increases in their number of FAFSAs completed as well, ranging from a 5-percent rise in Hawaii to a 17-percent one in Oklahoma. (Download a state-by-state chart here.) 

Additionally, the new data set, which incorporates the older students into both 2016 and 2017 data, still allows for date-to-date comparisons. When looking at the number of FAFSAs filed by June 30, 2016 as a benchmark and goal for FAFSA completion in 2017, the country is only 4 percent away from reaching that total. We are well on track to have more seniors file the FAFSA by June 30 this year than last (with the newly counted, older students included in both years). 

Looking at 2016 seniors who filed by April 14 and comparing them to 2017 seniors who filed by April 14, we see a 17-percent increase. In light of the ongoing FAFSA IRS Data Retrieval Tool outage, this year-over-year increase is good news. However, there are limitations to the data. With the exception of three 2016 cycle “reference” dates – April 14, June 30 and Dec. 30 – FSA did not update its previous counts to include 19-year-olds. That means we can't measure the precise effect of the DRT outage. (Download a state-by-state chart of April 14 rates here.)

The goal of this change is to make the data more accurate. 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.) The older students are now included for both the April 14, 2017 data, as well as the reference data from 2016. 

NCAN is greeting these new numbers with a cautious optimism. Higher FAFSA completion rates are welcome news for students and the field, but it is also important to ensure that 19-year-olds who took time off before enrolling are not counted mistakenly in the most recent high school class. Please reach out if the increase in your state does not seem possible based on the percentage of 19-year-old seniors in your school or district.

Correction (May 2, 2017): The state-by-state charts have been updated to correct errors in the columns containing June 2016 completion totals and April 14, 2016 completions. 

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