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The impact of the delayed FAFSA rollout on college retention

Ten questions student success leaders should be asking

July 3, 2024, By Ed Venit, Managing Director, Strategic Research

College leadership teams are justifiably concerned about the impact of the difficult FAFSA rollout on their incoming classes. Many are surging capacity with their financial aid teams to process paperwork and doubling down on summer melt strategies to ensure incoming students stay engaged.

However, enrollment and student success leaders are also considering the impact the FAFSA delays may have on retaining returning students. Returning students must refile their FAFSAs each year. What is normally a straightforward process could be fraught with uncertainty as returning students encounter many of the same hurdles and roadblocks as incoming students.

Financial aid teams typically turn their attention to returning students after processing their incoming class, so many leaders are only now beginning to grapple with the implications of the FAFSA rollout on retention. To aid in this, we assembled ten questions for enrollment and student success teams to ask themselves about how the FAFSA delays could impact their returning students:

Sizing the Issue

    1. How are your returning students pacing against prior years in fling FAFSA? We don’t yet have national data on FAFSA filing among returning students, but anecdotes suggest most schools are pacing behind what would be expected in prior years. Pull data from your own systems to develop internal trackers and meet with members of your front-line teams to hear their perspective on what students are saying.
    2. How much could this matter for retention? Financial aid delays could make many returning students uncertain about how they will pay for the upcoming year, and some may opt to take time off. You can reduce uncertainty with clear and regular communications around the new FAFSA process and how your institution is addressing the challenge. In your communications, make sure to remind students that they can still complete the FAFSA after the academic year begins.

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3. Which of my students are getting more money versus less money? Most students will be eligible for more money under the new process, which in theory should help boost retention rates. That said, students with siblings in college and students from families that own farms or small businesses may get less. Identify and reach out to students who might fall into the latter group. Make counseling a priority for families that have the biggest changes to their awards.

4.How much institutional aid needs to be set aside to close any gaps that result from changes in the funding formula? Depending on your methods, institutional aid awards may be informed by the FAFSA but not actually require it. Consider reducing uncertainty by re-awarding institutional aid to returning students even if they have not filed a FAFSA yet. Be prepared to increase grant aid for some students. Rely on the professional judgment of your financial aid officers to make necessary adjustments when possible.

5. How much additional financial aid counseling will be needed for returning students? This is an open question. New guidelines put into place with the FAFSA change should help reduce verifications, which could potentially lessen the burden on counselors. On the other hand, returning students will need at least some additional help with navigating the changes to their financial aid. Pay particular attention as bills go out for fall. Students who haven’t completed a FAFSA or received their financial aid package may see a bill with no aid on it and be confused or concerned.

6. How are college access community-based organizations (CBOs) facing the challenge? Many CBOs provide FAFSA support to students from lower-income backgrounds. Check in with your CBO partners to understand how their work with students has evolved and what implications it might have for your financial aid team.

Planning Ahead

7. What fall enrollment deadlines could impact students without financial aid packages, and what adjustments are necessary? Deadlines and holds related to student accounts may need to be extended or waived as students wait for their financial aid to post. Review your account processes to get ahead of any issues that could impact students and add to their frustration.

8. What communication strategies will benefit returning students over the summer and into the school year? Student success CRMs like Navigate360 can be used to surface and communicate with students who are impacted by the FAFSA delays. You can also use Navigate360 or another CRM to set up alerts that faculty, staff, and students can use to ask for help.

5 Ways to Improve Student “Customer Service

9. What is your strategy for advertising FAFSA support to returning students this fall? Many of your students will not be aware of the services available to help them navigate the financial aid process, and you will need to get the word out. Where can you make additions to your website? How can your academic advising or registrar offices help? Can you forward position counselors in visible, high-traffic places on campus where students will find them?

10. What challenges are temporary issues versus long-term issues? Some of the FAFSA-related issues you are experiencing are the direct result of the problematic rollout, but the silver lining is they should only be one-time concerns. Other issues stem from permanent changes in the process and will need to be accounted for on an ongoing basis. Differentiating between the two is critical for making informed adjustments in staffing and processes.


The recent updates to the FAFSA are meant to streamline the process and expand access to financial aid. Despite a rollout plagued with complications, proponents remain optimistic that these changes will help improve student success over the long term.

In the short-term, however, student success leaders must be proactive in preparing for a potentially turbulent fall semester and academic year. Strategic planning, clear communication, and innovative solutions will be crucial to navigating these challenges and supporting student retention effectively.

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Ed Venit

Managing Director, Strategic Research

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