Timing Is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends

March 27, 2019 Carlo Salerno

Last week CampusLogic released a data snapshot looking at the patterns in FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) filings during the 2018-19 aid year. It’s a form that more than 18 million people looking for financial assistance to make college more affordable completed last year alone. The data snapshot, Timing Is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends, offers a never-before-seen look at the data from those forms.

The patterns and results that we found—mentioned by The Wall Street Journal, Inside Higher Ed, Fortune, and NASFAA—seem to confirm what experts in the financial aid community have long suspected. Traditional students, and those families with the most income, not only recognize the value of getting a foothold into the aid cycle as early as possible but are more likely to act on those beliefs by filing a FAFSA as early as possible.

FAFSA Filing Trends: Prior-Prior-Year

Last year was also the second time that students could draw on tax data from two years’ prior (known as Prior-Prior Year) to complete their FAFSA, which made last year also the second time that students could submit the FAFSA as early as October first. Our snapshot doesn’t compare patterns in different filing years, but our findings showing half of all applications from dependent students came in before January first suggest that the push to get aid applications in earlier has met with some success. This is reinforced by our findings that filing volume was highest in the first months of the aid cycle (Oct – Nov) even for low-income and high-need students.

FAFSA Filing Trends: Older, Independent and Lower-Income FAFSA Filers

What’s worth noting in the results here are the later filing patterns of older, independent and lower-income students. It would be helpful, but we don’t have information here on the types of schools these students were looking to attend. However, we do casually know that community colleges and for-profit institutions’ open admissions policies and shorter program lengths draw larger percentages of these students. We also know that online programs and a growing cadre of dedicated, night and weekend programs at traditional 4-year schools do as well.

That’s important. Oftentimes for these students going to college isn’t something that’s planned out a year in advance. If anything, it’s more likely an immediate response to an unanticipated job loss or repeatedly paying the monthly bills and simply recognizing family obligations and unanticipated life expenses require more income that only additional training can provide.

Timing Is Everything, Especially for Lower-Income and Returning Adults

My point is that, as federal and state policy discussions increasingly recognize the scale and scope of non-traditional students and non-traditional credentials, discussions around financial aid policies need to keep pace. Yes, students filing for aid later in the cycle have the same access to federal student loans and Pell grants as early filers. However, most state grant programs and many institutional scholarships also leverage FAFSA data and these non-loan dollars often get awarded instead on a first-come, first-serve basis or require getting an application in as early as six to nine months before the traditional fall academic year begins.

Low-income students or returning adult students should not systematically lose access to non-federal grant and scholarship aid for no other reason than they didn’t make the decision to pursue college when traditional students did. Can we expect to encourage or incentivize student financial success if aid programs don’t accurately reflect the needs of the students they serve?

Financial Aid Policies Need to Keep Pace

If policymakers and institutional leaders are committed to student financial success, we need to re-think how state grant and institutional scholarships get awarded to ensure those looking to get a leg up from advanced training aren’t being systematically cut out of opportunities to keep college affordable. And if schools are committed to student financial success, we should expect they’ll do all they can to ensure institutional aid goes to those who need it the most. Our hope is that introducing data like this to the policymaking community will spur the kind of discussions that ensure access, keep borrowing in check and promote completion.

Download Timing is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends >

About the Author

Carlo Salerno

Carlo is the Vice President for Research at CampusLogic. Over an 18-year career, he has done higher education research for the federal government, co-founded an education analytics company, advised European and African education ministries and conducted a wide range of analytical studies for national advocacy groups and the student lending industry. As a thought leader on the economics of higher education, his writing has been published in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, The Hill, and the Huffington Post among other places.

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