High school senior FAFSA submissions drop almost 57% year over year, NCAN finds

Dive Brief: 

  • Roughly 676,000 high school seniors submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid through late January, fewer than half the number who had sent in the form by the same time last year, according to an analysis from the National College Attainment Network. 
  • The decline comes during — and presumably because of — an unusual year for the FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education released the revamped form nearly three months later than normal, and glitches and technical errors have plagued its rollout.
  • As of Jan. 26, high school seniors had submitted 56.6% fewer FAFSA forms compared to the year before. That drop is even more severe for students from high schools with predominantly low-income populations — they’ve seen a 65.2% year-over-year decline in FAFSA submissions. 

Dive Insight: 

The new FAFSA lowers the maximum number of questions students and families must answer from over 100 to several dozen. 

But the revamp came at a cost. Although the FAFSA is usually available by Oct. 1, it took the Education Department until Dec. 30 to get the simplified form out. 

Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives, attributed the decrease largely to the smaller window that students have to complete the FAFSA this cycle. 

NCAN’s analysis measured how many high school students submitted the form by Jan. 26 — just four weeks into the cycle for the 2024-25 academic year. At this point last year, students were already about 17 weeks into the cycle, DeBaun said. 

However, DeBaun said the high school class of 2024 had a “strong performance” when comparing the two cycles’ fourth weeks. 

In fact, this year’s class submitted about 3% more applications through late January compared to the number sent during the last cycle’s fourth week. DeBaun said he hopes those numbers grow at a faster clip to close the overall gap. 

“The class of 2023 had more than a three-month headstart on them,” DeBaun said. “We’re going to play catch up all spring.”

The December rollout isn’t the only delay upsetting this financial aid cycle. Last month, the Education Department said it wouldn’t submit FAFSA applicant data to colleges and state agencies until March, sharply curtailing the amount of time they have to make financial aid offers. 

NCAN and other higher education organizations have thus called on colleges to consider pushing back their traditional May 1 student commitment deadline. Some colleges have already changed those dates, including Oregon State University, Kalamazoo College and Lewis & Clark College. 

Students will also likely need guidance on completing the form, even with the simplification. 

“It is a question of having more hands out there to assist students and families with this process, to answer their questions,” DeBaun said. That includes reassuring them that they aren’t doing anything wrong when they run into technical glitches, he added. 

Certain students haven’t been able to fill out the FAFSA due to issues with the new form’s rollout. For instance, students whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers can’t submit the form yet, an issue that is harming immigrant families

A senior Education Department official said Monday that the agency is working on the issue but did not provide a timeline for a fix. At the same time, the department announced plans to send federal personnel to certain colleges to provide technical assistance as they process financial aid packages using the new form.

Dive Brief: 

  • Roughly 676,000 high school seniors submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid through late January, fewer than half the number who had sent in the form by the same time last year, according to an analysis from the National College Attainment Network. 
  • The decline comes during — and presumably because of — an unusual year for the FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education released the revamped form nearly three months later than normal, and glitches and technical errors have plagued its rollout.
  • As of Jan. 26, high school seniors had submitted 56.6% fewer FAFSA forms compared to the year before. That drop is even more severe for students from high schools with predominantly low-income populations — they’ve seen a 65.2% year-over-year decline in FAFSA submissions. 

Dive Insight: 

The new FAFSA lowers the maximum number of questions students and families must answer from over 100 to several dozen. 

But the revamp came at a cost. Although the FAFSA is usually available by Oct. 1, it took the Education Department until Dec. 30 to get the simplified form out. 

Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives, attributed the decrease largely to the smaller window that students have to complete the FAFSA this cycle. 

NCAN’s analysis measured how many high school students submitted the form by Jan. 26 — just four weeks into the cycle for the 2024-25 academic year. At this point last year, students were already about 17 weeks into the cycle, DeBaun said. 

However, DeBaun said the high school class of 2024 had a “strong performance” when comparing the two cycles’ fourth weeks. 

In fact, this year’s class submitted about 3% more applications through late January compared to the number sent during the last cycle’s fourth week. DeBaun said he hopes those numbers grow at a faster clip to close the overall gap. 

“The class of 2023 had more than a three-month headstart on them,” DeBaun said. “We’re going to play catch up all spring.”

The December rollout isn’t the only delay upsetting this financial aid cycle. Last month, the Education Department said it wouldn’t submit FAFSA applicant data to colleges and state agencies until March, sharply curtailing the amount of time they have to make financial aid offers. 

NCAN and other higher education organizations have thus called on colleges to consider pushing back their traditional May 1 student commitment deadline. Some colleges have already changed those dates, including Oregon State University, Kalamazoo College and Lewis & Clark College. 

Students will also likely need guidance on completing the form, even with the simplification. 

“It is a question of having more hands out there to assist students and families with this process, to answer their questions,” DeBaun said. That includes reassuring them that they aren’t doing anything wrong when they run into technical glitches, he added. 

Certain students haven’t been able to fill out the FAFSA due to issues with the new form’s rollout. For instance, students whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers can’t submit the form yet, an issue that is harming immigrant families

A senior Education Department official said Monday that the agency is working on the issue but did not provide a timeline for a fix. At the same time, the department announced plans to send federal personnel to certain colleges to provide technical assistance as they process financial aid packages using the new form.

, High school senior FAFSA submissions drop almost 57% year over year, NCAN finds

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