Filing the FAFSA Matters: When Students File May Matter More

Several weeks ago CampusLogic released a data snapshot on the patterns in FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) filings during the 2018-19 aid year. The piece, Timing Is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends, offers a never-before-seen look at the data from a form that more than 18 million individuals looking for financial assistance to make a college education as affordable as possible ended up completing last year alone.

The snapshot reveals that students with different backgrounds file the FAFSA at different times in the year—and that older students and lower-income students file later than younger and higher-income students, in some cases negatively affecting access to non-federal grant support.

FAFSA Filing Trends: Prior-Prior-Year

One of the biggest changes to federal financial aid in recent years empowered students to draw on tax data from two years’ prior (known as Prior-Prior Year, or PPY) when completing the FAFSA. The change was made to to help prevent students from filing too late—or not at all—and missing out on non-loan assistance. PPY moved the application process back a full three months making the aid cycle we looked at just the second time that students could submit as early as October first.

Our snapshot doesn’t compare patterns across filing years, but our findings certainly suggest that the push to get aid applications in earlier has met with some success. Four out of five FAFSAs from dependent students aged 18  and under, and 75 percent by dependent first-time, first-year students were submitted by January 31st. That filing volume was highest in the first two months of the aid cycle (Oct – Nov) even for low-income and high-need (zero Expected Family Contribution) students only reinforces this.

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

Some of the most noteworthy findings from this data snapshot revolve around the later filing patterns of older, independent and lower-income students. Half of all independent first-year filers did not submit their FAFSA until after April first while nearly one-third of independent students over the age of 30 didn’t submit their FAFSA until after May first. Prior to March first, dependent students whose parents’ reported adjusted gross income (AGI) fell in the highest quintile submitted the highest percentage of FAFSAs when compared to students from lower-income families. After March first? Dependent students from the lowest AGI quintile submitted the highest percentage of FAFSAs in each month.

We don’t have information on the types of schools these students were looking to attend but casual observation tells us that community colleges and for-profit institutions’ open admissions policies and shorter program lengths tend to draw larger percentages of these students. We also know that online programs and a growing cadre of dedicated, night and weekend programs at traditional four-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. Indeed, it’s more likely to be an immediate response to losing a job or becoming exasperated with a stalled career path and embracing the lure of no-frills, short-term specialized training that can, in fairly short order, lead to greater financial prosperity. Students that decide to enroll on fairly short notice or at the last minute often don’t realize that the financial aid dollars given out by states and institutions in the form of grants may already be gone.

Why “When” Matters

Overall, the patterns and results that we found seem to confirm long-held beliefs amongst financial aid experts that traditional students and those coming from families with greater financial means not only understand the importance of applying for aid early, but act on those beliefs by filing earlier than other student types.

Federal and state policy discussions increasingly recognize the changing face of today’s college student yet discussions around the financial aid policies have not seemed 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 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. How 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 increasing access, reducing borrowing and increasing completion, they 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. The schools today most lauded for being committed to student financial success go to great lengths to ensure that institutional aid gets targeted towards who needs it most, not who applies for it first.

Our hope is that introducing data like this to the policymaking community will spur the kind of ideas and actions that keep our higher education system the greatest in the world.

Download Timing is Everything: FAFSA Filing Trends >