FAFSA Completions for High Schoolers Down Nationwide

By: Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Throughout the month of February, NCAN heard from an increasing number of our members and partners that they are seeing a decrease in the FAFSA completions in the field. In response, NCAN reached out to Federal Student Aid (see articles from my NCAN colleagues last week Urgent Guidance and FSA Responds) and looked at publicly available FAFSA completion data. Analysis from the FAFSA Completion Project data tool shows that FAFSA completion for high school seniors is down 7 percent as of February 12. FAFSA submissions, however, are only down 2 percent as of February 12 (Click here to view state by state numbers). While there is always a gap between number of FAFSAs submitted and the number completed, the fact that the year to year change is greater for completions is concerning. The primary change from last year's FAFSA to this year's is the change to using a Federal Student Aid ID instead of a PIN to access and sign the FAFSA.

Without more detailed information from FSA, it is difficult to know the exact cause. A decrease in submissions could be from a variety of factors such as an improved economy (especially for older FAFSA filers) or a decrease in the size of the high school class. But the fact that the decrease in completions is greater than the decrease in submissions points to an issue with the FSA ID. Submitted FAFSAs that are not yet complete are usually missing a parent signature. NCAN members have reported a high level of difficulty setting up FSA IDs, particularly among parents. 

The data to analyze high school senior FAFSA completion is available from the FAFSA Completion Project. The website provides public access to a high school level list of the number of FAFSAs completed, downloaded by state. Using this information, an updated spot check was done on Illinois and Washington (first-come, first-served financial aid states) and California (3/2), Michigan (3/1), and TN (2/15 for Promise and 3/1 for state grant), which are early deadline states. The chart below shows updated data as of Feb. 26, 2016. With the exception of Tennessee, which requires FAFSA completion for students to be eligible for the TN Promise, all four states had a decrease in both submissions and completions. California, Michigan, and Illinois all have completion rates that are down 10% over the same day on 2015.

This Friday, March 11, the most telling FAFSA Completion data will be available as it will include the March 1/2 deadlines. NCAN encourages all of our members to track their FAFSA completion data from year to year. This year we see that this data can't just be used to end of season totals, but must be followed on a weekly basis so that any mid-course adjustments that are needed can be made promptly. For guidance on how to help your students, please see MorraLee Keller's "Urgent FAFSA Guidance" from last week.