Exploring The Effects of COVID-19 On FAFSA Completion Rates

By Erin Grogan, Ph.D, Sr. Director of Research & Evaluation

When low-income high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education at rates significantly lower than their higher-income peers,[1] it’s a clear sign that there are unnecessary, but very real, barriers on the pathway between high school graduation and college attendance. Enter more than 800 college access experts trained by College Advising Corps and its 30 university partner programs. These college advisers are recent college graduates themselves, 83 percent of whom were Pell-eligible or identify as people of color. They provide guidance on navigating college application milestones to nearly 240,000 high school seniors in 17 states this year. Nearly three-quarters of these seniors are low-income, will be the first in their family to attend college, or identify as students of color.

In a typical spring semester, advisers double down on supporting seniors and their families to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Of course, this spring is anything but typical. The pandemic-driven financial challenges facing millions of families make FAFSA completion more important than ever, because it is a ticket to eligibility for federal financial aid programs. In the 2018-19 school year, seniors who met with a CAC adviser were 27 percent more likely to complete the FAFSA than students in the same high schools who did not meet an adviser.[2] This matters, because CAC-served students who completed FAFSA were 37 percent more likely to enroll in college the fall after high school.[3]

At CAC, we’ve prioritized both FAFSA completion rates and adviser assistance with this notoriously difficult form as two organization-wide goals. This year, we are aiming for six out of every 10 seniors served receiving FAFSA assistance from their adviser, and ultimately, completing FAFSA. As of early May, advisers have nearly accomplished those goals, with 59 percent of seniors receiving FAFSA assistance and 55 percent completing FAFSA.

Unfortunately, there are worrying FAFSA completion trends emerging across high school nationwide. In recent analysis, the National College Attainment Network found that as of mid-April, FAFSA completion rates for U.S. low-income students are 4.2 percentage points lower than they were at this time last year.[4] That’s why we’re encouraged to see FAFSA completion rates for CAC-served students are not as negatively affected year-over-year as national averages. April 2020 FAFSA completion rates for CAC-served students are tracking just 1.9 percentage points behind April 2019. And, completion rates for specific groups of students, such as rural students, have been less significantly affected than national trends might suggest: FAFSA completion for CAC’s rural students are down just 1.5 percentage points from last year, but nationally rural student completion rates have declined 4.2 percentage points.[5]

What might explain these strong results? To find out, we’re currently engaged in research collaboration with Evaluation and Assessment Solution for Education, led by Eric Bettinger, Ph.D, of Stanford University. Last school year,180 CAC partner schools had 70 percent or more students complete the FAFSA, so we are investigating advising practices in a selection of these schools to learn more. Preliminary findings show that these strong results can’t be explained by external factors, such as districts making FAFSA completion a graduation requirement. Something is happening in these schools to provide students and families the support they need, and we know our advisers play an important role. Later this year, we’ll be releasing a detailed report outlining FAFSA completion best practices gleaned from these schools, including strategies from this interrupted spring semester.

The conclusion of this school year is not easy for anyone, but seniors still need and deserve personalized support to remain on the college path. These FAFSA completion trends are encouraging evidence that close relationships built between advisers and students are supporting seniors in attaining their post-graduation goals.

[1] According to the most recently available National Center for Education Statistics data, in 2016 65.4% of low-income high school completers were enrolled in college, compared to 82.5% of high-income high school grads. [2] Source. Analysis conducted by CAC Research & Evaluation team [3] Source. Analysis conducted by EASE [4] NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker. Data cited reflect the May 8, 2020 tracker update. [5] This includes schools designated both “rural” and “small town.”