A few months ago, we published findings on worrisome downward trends among low-income undergraduate students depositing at colleges and universities across the county. As high schools shifted online in the spring, low-income students in particular lost a valuable support network for college access. At the same time, many students shifted their attention to supporting their households in the wake of the huge economic fallout and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their families.
In late August, we updated our data set to include nearly twice as many admitted students (about one million) and to analyze the latest trends in enrollment deposits and FAFSA filings. It is both important and difficult to note that most of the same equity concerns we identified earlier in the summer continue. Low-income students and students of color are not depositing or submitting FAFSAs at the same rates as previous years. As classes begin around the country, this data indicates that these students will not be enrolled this fall, erasing years of improvement in college access.
Deposits continue to decline, especially among low-income students
Deposits continue to be down for students at all middle- and lower-income levels but is greatest among the students with the most need. Among students with Expected Family Contributions (EFC) below $10,000, deposits are down 7.5%. Our analysis in June showed a 6% decline in deposits among that same group. We also see a shift from June in that students from underrepresented groups were not down as significantly: down about 2% for Black students and less than 1% for Latinx students. White student deposits from these low-income groups were down over 14%, an increase from June when it was under 10%.
Admit and deposit change by EFC
FAFSA filings continue to fall
As we noted in June, possibly more concerning is the number of low-income students who deposited for the fall semester but have not yet filed a FAFSA as measured by consumer database and census income data. These deposited students will likely not be able to make college work financially without federal, state, and institutional funding, and therefore may not register, have to withdraw shortly after registration, or incur an unpaid balance that will be hard to overcome for future semesters. We are hearing from EAB Enrollment Services partners that they are extending payment deadlines and allowing students to enroll with balances to try to help these students, but time is limited as courses begin.
Nationally, FAFSA filings are down over 4% compared to last year and down closer to 6% from Title I high schools, which is consistent with EAB partner school data. Among EAB partner schools, students who have annual household incomes under $80,000 (roughly consistent with $10,000 or lower EFCs), deposits among students who have not filed a FAFSA are up a whopping 63%. Black and Latinx students are disproportionately up in this category, at 156% and 152% respectively, again higher than the analysis in June. White student change is also high but flat with June data.
The data continue to point to the widening equity gaps this fall as students from lower-income and minority households appear less likely than in years past to access the federal aid they need to actually afford college.
Change in number of deposited students not filing a FAFSA; absolute and percentage change for households with annual income less than $80K
The impact of declining FAFSA filings on equity
The trend in depositing students who have not filed FAFSA is troubling—and a significant call to action. Troubling because we know that most of these students and their families will not be able to make college work without federal funding, jeopardizing their own future, and increasing the melt risk of our incoming classes. Without federal funding, these students most likely won’t attend, or they’ll stop out with some debt but no degree. These students will be trying to enter the workforce—without a degree—in one of the weakest economies we’ve seen in a decade.
We also know that the longer a person waits to enroll in college, the less likely they are to earn a bachelor’s degree—the likelihood decreases by 30% after only one year off. Alternatively, they may enroll in a community college, intending to transfer. Unfortunately, fewer than 1 in 5 students who enter community college planning to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree actually do. And the chaos and uncertainty of the coming years likely won’t improve those outcomes.
The good news is that having identified this problem we can understand ways to mitigate it, both in the short term as well as the next several enrollment cycles as we continue to support students in the wake of the pandemic.
Tactics to increase FAFSA filings and deposits
If you have not yet started classes, consider extending payment deadlines and stopping the practice of auto-dropping students who have a balance. Work with students on short-term mitigation while they are completing financial aid paperwork to allow them to stay enrolled.
For coming enrollment terms:
Provide FAFSA completion support
Completing the FAFSA is arduous and intimidating for students and families—and even more so in the current environment. Offer virtual FAFSA 101 workshops, send written guidance and FAQs to demystify the process, outreach to families to ask if they need any additional support, and highlight the importance of filing to prospective families.
Keep in mind that while you may already be offering many of these services, students and their families are stressed, overwhelmed, and likely require additional support. Continue to be sure your outreach follows the best practices for communicating with prospective students and families during this time and that your support is accessible to all prospective students and families.
Routinely look at your internal data to identify which deposited students have not filed their FAFSA and offer them assistance in doing so. While this is certainly an ongoing effort at most institutions, enrollment leaders should contact and recontact those they may have outreached to already and explicitly message why filing is so critical. A simple phone call can mean the difference between significant aid enabling enrollment and nothing at all.
It’s also important to note that some students may not have filed their FAFSA because of lost income, health concerns, or increased responsibilities at home. Students may also not have filed due to financial literacy or counseling issues. Continue to ensure your communication with non-filers leads with compassion and empathy.
Reach out to students and families who’ve already filed the FAFSA later this fall
In the current economic environment, consider an outreach campaign to students and families who have already filed the FAFSA. Some of those students will have experienced a change in family circumstances qualifying them for additional funding. It’s worth reviewing student financial aid records to identify students who just missed cutoffs for federal or state grant aid and proactively reaching out to these students to see if they have had a change of family financial circumstance. If they have, a professional judgement by a financial aid officer may help these students become eligible for Pell and state grant aid, which will provide more support to these students at no cost to the institution.
Outside of the potential additional funds, this proactive outreach messages compassion and flexibility to students at a time when many families are struggling. This is an important aspect of yield strategy. Equally important is messaging to parents. Parents in low-income households are involved in the college search process, so including them in your outreach is essential.
Continue to prioritize support for returning students
While our analysis focused on red flags in the data concerning first time enrollees, supporting and retaining current students are also of great concern this year. FAFSA submissions are also down among returning students—and the stakes are high for those who have already invested significant time and money into their education. Returning students should also be encouraged to complete the FAFSA, and enrollment teams should continue to provide any extra support they need to follow through.
1,000,000 student sample
- Of these 1,000,000 students, 13.9% self-identified on their college admissions applications as Black, 16.2% self-identified as Latinx, 7.0% self-identified as Asian, 5.5% self-identified as “other minority,” and 57.2% self-identified as “non-minority.”
- These are unduplicated individual student records, culled from 150 of EAB’s partner institutions for which EAB had financial aid data.
- The partner institutions are public, private, small, large, secular, religious, representing all regions of the country.
- Out of those 1,000,000 admitted students, EAB looked at a subset of just under 200,000 students who submitted deposits—98,000 who submitted deposits for fall 2019 and 95,000 who submitted deposits for fall 2020 to enable the year-over-year analysis.
- For admitted students who filed a FAFSA, EAB collected EFC (Expected Family Contribution) from the FAFSA data. EFC is the same for an individual student regardless of where a student attends and is the standard measure for all students applying for federal aid.
- For non-FAFSA filers, EAB used a cutoff of $80,000 per year based on census income as access to specific household income is not available. EAB used $80,000 as a proxy for EFCs under $10,000, which includes Pell-eligible students and those just outside of Pell Grant eligibility.
- The national FAFSA filer data is pulled from the Department of Education. EAB only pulled new, first-time FAFSA filers (most likely high school seniors). That shows there are about 70,000 fewer FAFSA filers in the total population of high school seniors who filed.
- This is consistent with NCANs report on continuing students that showed low income students were filing FAFSAs at lower rates than their peers from families with higher incomes.