Illustration of businessman holding giant pot of gold

Early Results of FAFSA’s Calendar Shift

First-month FAFSA filings increased 21% this year, according to the National College Access Network. It examined FAFSA completions by high school and found that substantially more students filed during the first month the 2017-18 FAFSA was open (October 2016) than during the first month the 2016-17 FAFSA was open (January 2016). Yet completion was down in 11 states, including the six New England states.

This preliminary analysis leaves more questions than answers. Part of the reason the FAFSA opening date was moved up three months was to help ensure that students would file early enough to be considered for all of the sources of financial aid they are eligible to receive. So are high-need families the ones who are submitting the FAFSA early in greater numbers so that, for example, they don’t miss out on the limited availability of their state’s grants? Or is the increase coming from families who are sophisticated about the financial aid process and care more about using the FAFSA as a tool to obtain institutional financial aid?

The College Board’s newly released “Trends in College Pricing” and “Trends in Student Aid” point to reasons that families of all income levels would be rushing toward financial aid. During the past year, tuition prices increased more than financial aid availability and family incomes. Yet undergraduates are relying more on grants to comprise their financial aid, because they are taking out less in student loans.

Other questions: Are the first-month FAFSA filers already submitting applications for admission to colleges? Is there much overlap of early FAFSA filers with Early Decision/Action applicants? Is eagerness to secure financial aid a driver to apply early for admission? A recent survey of students on Chegg.com (64% of whom self-reported a high school GPA of 3.6 or higher) asked which factors had a positive, a negative, or no impact on their decision to apply to specific colleges. Interestingly, having an admissions policy that offered Early Decision/Action was viewed as positively impactful by 58% of respondents and negatively impactful by only 3%.

 

Early FAFSA Filings

FAFSA completion numbers were up during its initial four weeks—which for the first time took place in October instead of January. (The New York Times)

College Board Reports

Undergraduates are relying more on grants to fund their education and less on student loans, despite tuition rising more than financial aid. (College Board)

Views of Early Decision/Action

Survey results show the availability of early deadline admissions policies increases the probability of students applying. (TeensTALK)

 

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Needless to say, many colleges and universities are experiencing a bit of a “gold rush.” In a higher education marketplace that has undoubtedly become much more price-sensitive, families of all income levels are estimating their real cost earlier in their college consideration process. Perhaps this financial focus, aided by the new opportunity to file the FAFSA sooner, will result in earlier college selection.

But as many veteran chief enrollment officers have shared with us recently at a variety of national conferences, there is genuine consternation that the demonstrated interest funnel is not necessarily expanding, but simply moving up in time—and that actively engaging students, parents, and other influencers early with targeted, segmented content that reinforces each institution’s value proposition is a must. The allotted time for the marketplace to engage in “comparison shopping” will run longer if financial aid packages are delivered sooner, and that will impact yield (most likely bringing the unwelcome warmth of summer melt). Then again, the early numbers could be a real incremental gain and a definite reason to give thanks this holiday season.

No matter what, we wish all of our readers and followers a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!