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New federal data show a substantial drop in renewals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by returning college students, according to an analysis from the National College Attainment Network.

Almost 250,000 fewer returning students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed their FAFSA for the 2020-21 cycle, NCAN said, and FAFSA renewals were down nearly 5 percent over all (4.7 percent) compared to last year -- a decline of more than 350,000 students.

The drop in renewals during this aid cycle has more than doubled since the end of February, when total completions were 2.3 percent lower than on the same date last year, according to the group, which has created a dashboard to view the FAFSA renewal data.

The decrease is even steeper among students from low-income backgrounds, the analysis found. Through April 15, the total number of renewals from students with annual family incomes of less than $25,000 was down by more than 8 percent, compared to a 4 percent decline for those with family incomes of $25,000 to $50,000, and just 1 percent for those with incomes of more than $50,000.

The pandemic and conversion by colleges and universities to online instruction appears to have accelerated declines in FAFSA renewals. NCAN said the downward trend "is deeply troubling" and suggests students are uncertain about continuing their postsecondary educations.

“FAFSA completion is a strong indicator of postsecondary enrollment, so we should carefully monitor FAFSA renewal as a predictor of emerging fall enrollment trends,” Kim Cook, the group's executive director, said in a statement.