FAFSA renewals still down, but more students appealing aid

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Dive Brief:

  • Roughly 3% fewer students renewed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as of May compared to a year ago, according to new data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN).
  • Meanwhile, administrators report an uptick in students asking them to reevaluate their financial aid awards, a new survey finds. 
  • Both reports point to the pandemic-related financial struggles many students will likely face in the coming academic year, which could prevent some from enrolling in the fall.

Dive Insight:

NCAN already determined that FAFSA renewals were declining steeply through mid-April, a decrease of about 350,000 students compared to the year before, many of them from low-income households.

The analysis suggested fewer students would return to college for the fall semester, as the economic fallout from the pandemic has made it difficult for them to pay. NCAN’s most recent findings show a slight improvement in the trajectory of renewals, though they still lagged compared to last year.

Completing the FAFSA is necessary to secure a range of federal aid, including the Pell Grants available to low-income students. NCAN’s research notes that Amiddle-income students were actually renewing the FAFSA at higher rates through May versus last year, meaning the downturn was primarily among the lowest income brackets.

Renewals were up 3.6% year-over-year between April 1 and May 31 among students from families earning $50,000 or more a year. But for students whose families had an annual income of $25,000 or less, renewals were down 9.6%.

NCAN also broke out the renewal data by state. Only in five states — Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas and Utah — were college students renewing the FAFSA at higher rates this year. Pell-eligible students’ renewals were only up in two of those states — Nevada and Texas, a possible signal that fewer low-income students will attend college this fall.

Administrators are also “bracing themselves” for an increase in financial aid appeals among returning students who have experienced economic hardship, wrote the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) in a post on its website. 

NASFAA surveyed nearly 300 colleges last week to assess the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on students’ financial aid requests. Institutions use a standardized assessment to determine a students’ financial aid award, but officials have the flexibility to use “professional judgment” to gauge a student’s circumstances and change how much aid they receive, NASFAA wrote. 

The group found that nearly half of colleges surveyed received more requests for a personal “judgement” between March and the end of May than they did during the same period last year. 

About a fifth of the respondents said such requests were up 50% or more. And nearly all of them anticipate an increase in such requests between late May and Oct. 1. However, nearly 80% of respondents said they wouldn’t be offering future discounts on tuition, room and board, or books as a way to limit the number of students requesting an adjustment to their award. 

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