Early FAFSA: Fast, but Will it Go Far?

Kent Barnds takes stock of the impact of a major change in the financial aid and student recruitment timetable.

January 19, 2017
 
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A little over a year ago, our enrollment team at Augustana College met in retreat to discuss the anticipated impact of prior-prior year submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or early FAFSA, as it is called now. We completed a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of what we perceived as entwined in this big change to the financial aid and recruitment timetable. After considerable discussion, we created new timetables, developed a new communication sequence for our prospective and current students, established new and updated old systems, and took a deep breath as we faced an uncertain future with new time frames and a new process.

As we spoke with visiting families during the spring and summer months, we were pleasantly surprised by how many seemed to be informed and fully aware that the FAFSA would now be available for submission on Oct. 1, rather than Jan. 1 -- and that applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year. The high level of awareness continued into the fall. All visit days and high school visits confirmed that families, school counselors and other influencers were aware, had adjusted timetables and were itching to submit the FAFSA earlier than ever before.

Oct. 1 came quickly, and so did the FAFSA submissions. It seemed as if many families were sitting at the computer ready to submit the infamous form in the same way many of us waited to order tickets for Broadway’s Hamilton, refreshing their browsers until they could get in and get it done.

In fact, the early volume of FAFSAs submitted from prospective and current students stunned Augustana’s office of financial aid. All the table tents in the dining hall, the umpteen emails we sent out, our first-ever FAFSA print mailer and the inclusion of the FAFSA timeline in our application instructions had worked. We are rolling in FAFSAs and have exceeded last year’s total volume from first-year students by 40 percent.

Given the high conversion/yield rate for FAFSA submitters in the past cycle, it’s time to break out the champagne. I mean, we’ve done it. We reconditioned the marketplace, prospective students and their families are following our directions, and now we just need to execute. Right?

I confess that I’ve enthusiastically shared the volume numbers with faculty and staff members, the president, and the chair of the Augustana Board of Trustees, and I even tweeted about it early on. But I also admit that I don’t know whether our numbers are strong or soft indicators. Perhaps, I suspect, they are a little of both.

And as I dig into the data, I am increasingly convinced that these lead indicators require very cautious interpretation and should temper my exuberance. Let me offer a couple of examples.

First, because of the U.S. Department of Education’s caution about establishing early timetables for submission, and the potential impact on underserved populations, I have been watching FAFSA submissions for applicants of color carefully and am cautious about what I see. Currently, we continue to see trailing rates of submission for students of color in the applicant pool, with more than 40 percent of those students who applied for admissions not yet filing the FAFSA. The department’s caution is relevant to all of us, and we must now ask what we can do to increase the filer rate among this important population.

Second, nearly 20 percent of those students who have submitted the FAFSA have not yet applied to my college for admission. Some of these FAFSA submitters are even coded as having asked us to cease communication with them. Now, a universal truth in college admissions is that 100 percent of the students who don’t apply don’t enroll. While there certainly is plenty of time for these hundreds of FAFSA submitters to still apply (and I sure hope they do), it’s also reasonable to conclude that we are not a serious consideration for them, making this usually strong indicator meaningless.

There is more to investigate as we look at these very early indicators, but only time will tell us what all of this means.

Looking at the data, I wonder if the Department of Education and all of those who pushed for early FAFSA may have just created the newest fast-application program. Fast-application programs for college admissions are frequently criticized for inflating applicant pools and making it too simple and too convenient for students to apply. These same programs make it difficult for new users in college admissions to interpret what an increase in volume may really mean to yield and enrollments.

Think about it. We’ve made it easier to submit the FAFSA. We’ve aggressively communicated about submitting the FAFSA. We’ve created a marketed FAFSA with the IRS data-retrieval tool. We have systemwide partners, like the Common Application, more effectively encouraging the submission of the FAFSA. We’ve done our best to better align the cost and admissions decision.

It seems we are doing all of the right things. But are we reaching all the right students and families --those most likely to choose Augustana and thrive here?

I am a believer in making the entire process more transparent and less complicated, and in aligning the cost and search process. But I wonder if early FAFSA will just add a new complication for colleges and families -- and more noise that must be interpreted and filtered. Only time will tell.

Bio

W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president at Augustana College.

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