Early FAFSA “finds”: Invisible students and new engagement opportunities


Early FAFSA “finds”: Invisible students and new engagement opportunities

Now that we’ve made it through the first October FAFSA, many of us in the enrollment community have begun to look at its impact and significance. My colleague, for example, has been examining early FAFSA’s effects on critical enrollment funnel metrics like application volume.

Just a few days ago, I heard a different type of observation from one of my teammates in EAB’s Enrollment Services analytics group: a surprising number of students are first appearing in our partner schools’ Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) through their early FAFSA filing.

Stealth searchers, revealed

These students have not yet applied, and some have never even expressed interest. They were invisible to institutions until they submitted their financial aid forms: they were on neither inquiry nor applicant lists. These “stealth searchers” are not a new phenomenon, but given the earlier timing of FAFSA’s availability, both the volume and the opportunity to recruit these students are greater.

The ISIR records from these formerly invisible students give schools a powerful opportunity to engage an interested and as-yet unidentified population—students who might otherwise become “stealth applicants” or worse still, not apply at all.

This is an important population, and it will likely grow in the coming years. The acceleration of the FAFSA calendar has increased the number of incoming freshmen completing their financial aid applications early.

With the ability to share their information with up to ten institutions, more students will enter schools’ codes on their FAFSA before submitting an application simply because they have had less time to complete their college forms and essays. (Students also sometimes feel as though they have already expressed interest to a college when they submit the FAFSA—a long-standing concern endemic to dual application processes.) The FAFSA is three months earlier, but most students’ applications won’t be.

Financial aid and admission offices can make the most of this lag time by developing means—a matching algorithm or enhanced interdepartmental communication, for example—to connect student data across the enrollment cycle. We encourage our partner schools to use early ISIRs to flag previously unidentified, interested students for specialized outreach campaigns.

A new opportunity for outreach

Were admission counselors promptly informed that new prospective students had popped into the ISIR for the first time in October, they could proactively reach out to them:

“We noticed that you submitted your FAFSA information to our institution but have not yet applied. We’re excited that you are interested in our school. I’d love the opportunity to get to know you and your goals. We should set up a time to talk. In the interim, the next step you can take in your process is to visit our application page.”

Our research has long confirmed that simple, well-timed messages like this can go on to have a big impact on recruitment success. In the accelerated FAFSA calendar, they will work to cultivate qualified inquiry pools and give institutions the opportunity to engage with some might-have-been stealth applicants earlier than ever.