FAFSA Submissions Decline

As application numbers go up, FAFSA numbers go down.

Despite a national social media campaign to urge students to submit their FAFSA in a timely manner, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has not kept pace with overall admissions trends. In fact, FAFSA applications have declined. According to information collected by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) for their “FAFSA Updates Webinar,” almost a half-million fewer students submitted the FAFSA in the October 2018-May 2019 cycle, compared to the October 2017-May 2018 cycle. 

If more students are applying to college than ever before, why are fewer of them requesting federal aid? 

Part of the decline might have to do with the amount that families have come to expect from federal aid. According to the College Board, federal expenditure on Pell Grants is on the decline; after reaching an all-time high of $40.1 billion in 2010, the expenditure in 2017-2018 was $28.2 million. In 2010, the average Pell Grant per recipient received $4,304 (converted into 2017 dollars), while the average recipient in 2017 only received $4,013. While Pell Grant money has remained stagnant, college costs continue their climb: from 2008-2009 to 2018-2019, tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions increased an average of 35%. As Brad Barnett, director of financial aid and scholarships at James Madison University, told US News and World Report, “The Pell Grant is not keeping pace with the cost of education, and it hasn’t kept pace with the cost of education for years, probably even decades.” 

The current political climate may also be affecting FAFSA application numbers. According to the FAFSA website, only the student’s immigration status is taken into account when aid is given (unless the student is applying for a Direct Plus Loan). Even though FAFSA will not be affected by new “public charge rules” that will make it more difficult for immigrants to access certain public benefits, educators worry that confusion about the law may discourage students from immigrant families from submitting. Moreover, students with undocumented parents may be fearful of submitting any information about their family to the federal government. Although FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) applies to financial aid submissions, FAFSA does have certain circumstances under which they will share student information with other government agencies.

This trend is one to keep an eye on. Colleges across the nation are grappling with questions of access across racial, gender, and economic lines, and FAFSA is an integral part of that discussion. As student debt reaches $1.5 trillion dollars nationwide, how students and families finance their college career can tell us a lot about the future of higher education in the U.S.


Learn more about the FAFSA at our upcoming webinar with Stuart Canzeri of Peachtree College Planning. On October 8th, Stuart will discuss the value and benefits of filing the FAFSA, the key elements of financial aid, and more. [Sign up]


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