As we have seen in our analyses of the last admissions cycle, many students—particularly those from low-income backgrounds—did not enroll in college in the fall of 2020. Unfortunately, this problem appears likely to continue when we assess application activity and FAFSA submissions for the fall 2021 entering class.
In watching student application behavior this cycle, we have been encouraged slightly by application activity around key deadlines. For example, we saw almost three times as many applications submitted on the November 15 deadline compared to last year. But FAFSA applications as of early December are still running far behind. Nationally, FAFSA applications are down more than 12% compared to last year. And FAFSA applications are behind in every state except Hawaii, where FAFSA applications are even with last year.
Seemingly non-urgent tasks falling by the wayside
Today’s heavy reliance on virtual instruction seems to have thrown off typical timelines, and some students are only completing tasks that are right in front of them. Our recent high school counselor survey and webconference corroborates this suspicion. With a multitude of personal and professional demands—many unique to the pandemic—college applications and FAFSA filing can get pushed down in priority for both students and counselors.
Unlike the application processes we support for our Enrollment Services partners, which include significant outbound communication pushes around deadlines, applying for financial aid often has a late priority deadline (February or March), a very loose set of recommended filing dates, or just an attitude of “get it in when you can.”
Making FAFSA more of a "must-do"
Although that approach is normally a good one—we don’t want to limit students applying for aid where possible—this year, we encourage partners to create urgency around FAFSA filing or we run the risk of having lower enrollment than planned in 2021.
Here are five recommendations on how to create urgency:
Set priority dates
Set priority dates for FAFSA filing and make a packaging commitment such as: “If you file by X date, we will have an aid offer to you by Y date.”
Extend priority deadlines and aid for late filers
Don’t limit aid for late filers and do extend priority deadlines for FAFSA submission. By telling students that you still have aid left to give, you encourage filing.
Communicate with parents
Communicate with parents and let students and parents know that they should file the FAFSA even if what the FAFSA reports (2019 financial data) is far different from their 2020 financial situation. Let them know that completing the FAFSA (and listing your institution) is most important and there is a process for telling you about income or other changes.
Communicate with counselors
Communicate with counselors from feeder high schools. Remind them of your filing dates and offer FAFSA filing resources they can share directly with students and families. Share your priority date extensions and note that you will not limit aid for later filers.
Set up in-person FAFSA filing sessions (if possible)
If possible, set up in-person FAFSA filing sessions. Obviously, this is very difficult given COVID-19 cases across the country right now but consider putting dates on the calendar in February and March to have in-person sessions. You can always cancel them but collecting names and contact information is important.
Though there are myriad reasons that students and families do not submit the FAFSA, especially this year, better instruction and support can help. Encouraging students and their families to file their FAFSAs, while also offering the resources they need to do so, is more critical this year than ever.
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