Drop in college enrollment deposits and FAFSA filing raises equity concerns

Expert Insight

Drop in college enrollment deposits and FAFSA filing raises equity concerns

Everyone is feeling the impact of the pandemic—its disruption to everyday life, isolating social restrictions, and the stress of a widespread threat to public health—as well as the economic fallout of a closed economy. However, like so many natural disasters and economic events, the impact is felt much more heavily by certain racial and socioeconomic groups. For example, while 13% of all U.S. adults have experienced a job loss since the onset of the pandemic, fully 40% of low-income households have experienced one. In this context, it is unsurprising that there are ripple effects for these households, including their access to education.

Red flags for educational equity

Recent EAB analysis of over 500 thousand admitted students uncovered several red flags that highlight how acute this issue—equity in access to higher education—will likely be in the fall. In short, low-income students and students of color are not depositing at the same rates as previous years, and those that are depositing, are not submitting FAFSA at the same rates as previous years.

Decline in deposits

While deposits are down for all students at lower income levels, the decline is greatest among students with the most need. The data show a 6% year-over-year decline in deposits among students from households with Expected Family Contributions (EFC) below $10K. For Black students in that income bracket, deposits are down 12%. Only when EFC rises above $40K do we stop seeing a decline in deposits.

Lower-income students hit hardest
Substantial drop in deposits, even accounting for admit decreases

Admit and Deposit Change by EFC
Source: EAB research and analysis.

Decline in FAFSA Submissions

Equally, if not more, concerning, is a trend among deposited students who self-identified on their admissions applications as minorities and have annual household incomes less than $80K—a close proxy for students we anticipate being Pell-eligible or just above the cut-off (EFC up to $10K). An alarming number of Black and Latinx students (17.5% and 14.9% respectively) who come from homes with annual incomes of less than $80K have deposited but not submitted the FAFSA as of June 12.

Overall, FAFSA first time filings are down 4% since mid-March. The trend is most alarming for low-income and historically underserved minority households. There has been an outsized increase in minority students across all income levels who have not yet applied for federal financial aid. Among students with annual household incomes less than $80K, Black and Latinx students (comprising 68% of the students in this income bracket) are least likely to file a FAFSA.

The data point to widening equity gaps this fall as students from lower-income and minority households appear less likely than in years past to access the federal financial aid they need to afford college.

Outsized increase in minority non-filers
Conspicuous growth in number of students not filing a FAFSA

Change in number of deposited students not filing a FAFSA
Absolute and percentage change, for households with annual income less than $80K
Source: EAB research and analysis.

A call to action on educational equity

The trend in depositing students not having filed the FAFSA is very worrying, but also a call to action. Worrying because we know that most of these households will not be able to make college work without federal funding, jeopardizing their own futures, and increasing the melt risk of our incoming classes. Without federal funding, these students most likely won’t attend, or they’ll stop out at some point 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 she is 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 does. And the chaos and uncertainty of the coming years likely won’t improve those outcomes.

Why is this happening? It is likely due, at least in some part, to the closing of secondary schools. Students already at higher risk have now lost the support network of their high school – their guidance counselors, teachers and trusted friends, as well as the momentum and focus that comes with being a part of that community. To make matters worse, it is a chaotic and stressful time for many households across the country—students may be dealing with a parent having lost a job or battling illness, taking the focus off college planning. Minority households—where we are seeing the most concerning drop off in deposits and FAFSA submissions—have been hit hardest by COVID-19, and were struggling disproportionately with the emotional fallout of the killing of George Floyd and accompanying social unrest, which was at its peak at the beginning of June—the deposit date selected by most institutions in the wake of the pandemic. The good news is that simply having identified this problem is the first step in addressing it—and there are steps you can take to address it.

Institutional efforts to improve access

  1. Contact non-filers: The first step is to contact non-filers. Look at your school’s data to identify which deposited students have not filed their FAFSA and reach out to them and assist them in doing so! While this is certainly an ongoing effort at most institutions, in light of these findings, EAB encourages enrollment leaders to contact and recontact those they may have outreached already, and explicitly message why filing is so critical and be sure they understand what aid might be available to them once they do. A simple phone call can mean the difference between significant aid enabling enrollment, and nothing at all.
  2. Provide FAFSA completion support: With equity in mind, EAB also recommends providing FAFSA completion support. This is a process that is arduous and intimidating to begin with, 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, it is a stressful, overwhelming, and unprecedented time for these families—continue to be sure your outreach follows EAB’s recommended best practices, and that your support is accessible to all prospective students and families. Putting this support in place now will also be critical to building and yielding your class in the fall of 2021.
  3. Reach out to students and families who’ve already filed the FAFSA: In the current economic environment, EAB also recommends an outreach campaign to students and families who have already filed the FAFSA. It is likely that some percentage of them will have experienced a change in family circumstances qualifying them for additional funding. It is 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 the 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 also messages compassion and flexibility to students at a time when many families are struggling. As we discussed in a recent insight, this is an important aspect of yield strategy right now.

Targeting support to continuing students

While this EAB analysis focused on red flags in the data concerning first time enrollees, we know that summer melt among continuing students is also a great concern this year. FAFSA submissions are also down among continuing students and the stakes are high for those who have already invested significant time and money into their education. Continuing students should also be targeted with messaging to complete the FAFSA, and provided with any additional support they need to follow through.

  1. 500,000 student sample
    • Of these 500,000 students, 13.3% self-identified on their college admissions applications as Black, 11.3% self-identified as Latinx, 8.7% self-identified as Asian, 11.2% self-identified as “other minority,” and 55.4% 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 500,000 admitted students, EAB looked at a subset of 100,000 students who submitted deposits—50,000 who submitted deposits for fall 2019 and 50,000 who submitted deposits for fall 2020 to enable the year-over-year analysis.
  2. Income-related 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.

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