Visualizing FAFSA Fiasco by Geography

Looking at state-level and city-level application and completion data for new FAFSA

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As we described yesterday, the FAFSA fiasco is shaping up to have a major impact on enrollment and institution finances for the next few years, and we can no longer ignore the impacts. The first post in our analysis showed that the scheduling problems started from the beginning of the initiative in early 2021.

Today Inside Higher Ed published an excellent short post describing the newly-released data from the US Department of Education (ED).

As of March 29, 40 percent fewer high school students had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid than they did by that date in 2023, according to newly released data from the Department of Education, a massive drop caused largely by the new form’s disastrous rollout.

The new federal data is the first to separate completion rates as a subset of submission rates, according to the National College Attainment Network. FAFSA submissions, which include forms that still need corrections, are down 27 percent year-over-year.

The 13 percent difference between completions and submissions implies a larger-than-usual number of form errors this year, which the department said cannot be corrected until processing is completed in mid-April. That could set back colleges’ already-delayed timelines on sending financial aid packages, and give students even less leeway to decide which college to attend based on accurate cost information.

This combination of fewer high schools students even submitting an application plus the reduced completion rate paints a picture that is even worse than has been described by ED.

FAFSA applications are down 27% from this point last year and completions are down 40%. In fact, those numbers were not even in the description of the data release. Kudos to ED for releasing the data, but shame on them for trying to soft pedal the message.

We at On EdTech thought it would be useful to provide further breakdown of the data to help visualize the impacts of the fiasco, with the first view broken down by geography. Apologies to most US territories, but for now we are showing just the US states and Puerto Rico to keep the visualizations readable.

All data below is taken from the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office at ED, based on their release yesterday.

The data release is a reporting tool for high schools provided by ED and is for students 19 and younger, and thus it does not include non-traditional first-time applications, which might be in even worse situation.

The data included in the attached charts reflect the number of submitted and completed FAFSA forms among first-time filing applicants no older than 19 years old at the cutoff date who will have received their high school diploma by the start of the school year to which they are applying for aid. For each high school, the number of submitted and completed applications is reported for the application cycles of 2023–24 and 2024–25.

FAFSA Data as of March 29, 2023 and 2024

The first view is a table of FAFSA applications and completions (meaning the form was processed fully) as of March 29, 2023 for a comparison, and for March 29, 2024 for this year’s status. We have also added a state / territory-level year-over-year (YoY) decline in completions.

Table showing state-level FAFSA completion data

You can see that, excluding most territories, the data range from North Dakota with the lowest YoY drop (27%) to California with the largest YoY drop (46%).

Map Views of YoY Drops

To get a better distribution view, the following map color codes each state in the continental US by the YoY drop in completions. Not shown is Hawai’i (41% drop) and Alaska (34% drop).

Nathan Grawe’s (in)famous description of the demographic cliff showed how a combination of high-school graduate numbers and likely college-going rates per demographics will really hit the US in next year (with earlier effects in the midwest). Population in general is declining in the Northeast and Midwest and increasing in the Sun Belt - in a very general sense.

With this view you can see a sort of reverse-Grawe effect. The smallest declines in FAFSA completions are those regions already losing college-potential populations the most, and the largest declines are across where the population is growing the most. In many ways, this makes sense with the Sun Belt having the highest percentage of first-generation students (and keep in mind that the location is of the high school, not the college or university, which becomes even more relevant with fully-online programs).

The following view does the same as above but A) broken down by the high school’s city location, and B) adds in a measure of the number of FAFSA completions in 2023.

In this view, many large urban areas show disproportionate declines. But that is an oversimplification.

  • Houston is red at 47% drop, but San Antonio is green at 36% drop.

  • Baltimore and parts of New York City are red, but the majority of the Acela Corridor is green.

  • Some of the highest drops can be seen in the Tennessee Valley and northern Mississippi and Alabama.

  • California is in deep trouble.

Stay tuned for more analysis.

Update 10 Apr: Change color coding to gold-red based on online feedback.

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