March FAFSA deadlines – Part II

Each Friday, the US Department of Education publishes FAFSA filing data for all high schools in the country. We have been using this data to examine trends in filing, both for prior cycles and the the current (2017-18) cycle.

Last Friday, we presented at the AEFP conference or working paper (here) on filing rates and we thought it would be fun to throw in a slide on the new data that was released earlier that morning. We wanted to do that because it was the first look at filing since the IRS and Department of Education suspended the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) on March 3rd. This tool made it easier for filers to import their tax records, which in turn should help students complete the form and reduce the need for verification.

In that presentation we shared the following slide, saying the dip corresponded with the DRT suspension.

In our discussion and in the following conversations, we pointed out that some states have March deadlines that could be behind the spike and drop we see here. Attendees at the session also noted that the drop could simply be a result of secular trends, rather than the tool being unavailable. This is what we loved so much about the conference — we could puzzle together on an ongoing policy issue and we could discuss appropriate research designs for disentangling secular trends from the “treatment” effect.

I am still in conference mode, so I was eager to follow up on this when I returned home. Here is a quick look at those secular trends comparing states with early March deadlines (CA, ID, IN, MD, MI, OR, WV) to all other states.

This chart is a little hard to read, but the left shows last year’s cycle and the right is this year’s. We’re looking at the week-to-week percentage point change in FAFSA completions among high school seniors.

The dotted line represents states with early March filing dates, and sure enough we see the early-March spike in both cycles. And, as expected, we don’t see that spike in other states.

But notice one thing: the weekly trends show much steeper changes than this year’s cycle. This is because last year was much more condensed and this year is spread out over three additional months.

The March spike last year went from 21% to 36%, a 14 percentage point bump in a single week! This year, the bump is much smaller, but it is still large relative to other weeks: a 9 ppt bump.

I wanted to show these big picture trends just to get the complete cycle in our minds. But this is hard to see in the above chart, so let’s zoom in.

We see the steep weekly declines in the 2016-17 cycle, where “early March” states basically flat-line by the end of the month. And the other states slow down to about 5 percent growth rates through April.

In the 2017-18 cycle, we still see that spike and we can anticipate the “early March” states will flat-line in the coming weeks. But it looks like the weekly trend holds pretty steady from week to week, hovering around 4 percent until February when it dips down to 2 percent.

[Side note: Look at the holiday season dip here, where filing drops in December. It does the same around Thanksgiving in the other chart above.]

The DRT suspension occurred on March 3rd, which likely had little to no effect on “early March” states so long as their deadlines were on March 1 or 2. But in the other states, we see March 10 (the week following the DRT suspension) reach its lowest point all cycle. The growth rate drops to 1.6% and we will monitor whether it rebounds in the coming weeks.

Considering that 1.78 million high school filers completed by June 30 last year, we have a long way to go to beat that level. We are currently at 1.62 million completions. That’s 160,000 a student gap that needs to be filled in 15 weeks. We can get there with a weekly growth rate less than 1 percent. We are already far above where we were last year in terms of completions, and I doubt weekly growth rates will slow below 1 percent. But this needs monitoring to be sure we’re on pace.

Whether the dip we saw this week was just part of the secular trend or whether it was because of the DRT suspension, we cannot say for sure with this descriptive analysis. We just wanted to share the data and bring this into the conversation. We don’t want to add noise or confusion to that conversation and we want to point out that it is hard to disentangle secular trends from the “treatment” effect. And that’s precisely why AEFP is a good conference to visit in order to share preliminary findings and to work through questions together.

We’ll keep monitoring this and piecing together as best of a picture as we can. Feedback welcome, as always!

Data:

Early March states Not early March states
Completed Submitted Completed Submitted
2016-17 cycle
January 8, 2016 30,515 36,605 104,872 125,304
January 15, 2016 54,412 64,185 185,193 216,134
January 22, 2016 77,754 91,606 257,083 299,213
January 29, 2016 104,997 123,217 339,954 392,649
February 5, 2016 139,918 163,356 451,996 518,168
February 12, 2016 167,847 194,819 544,011 618,187
February 19, 2016 202,543 234,077 650,209 736,784
February 26, 2016 244,641 280,501 745,762 837,536
March 4, 2016 332,235 383,092 865,845 967,066
March 11, 2016 351,423 402,080 918,114 1,020,316
March 18, 2016 362,821 412,751 969,787 1,074,355
March 25, 2016 370,270 416,572 1,010,295 1,110,564
April 1, 2016 374,809 420,089 1,051,186 1,152,268
2017-18 cycle
October 7, 2016 36,760 41,943 159,976 180,256
October 14, 2016 63,726 71,756 264,881 293,808
October 21, 2016 89,957 101,377 359,001 396,507
October 28, 2016 115,443 129,415 448,117 492,713
November 4, 2016 139,479 155,856 533,215 584,646
November 11, 2016 154,773 172,794 586,070 641,763
November 18, 2016 177,266 197,186 665,354 726,252
November 25, 2016 186,013 206,853 696,765 759,629
December 2, 2016 207,066 229,919 769,497 837,037
December 9, 2016 216,850 240,117 806,861 875,767
December 16, 2016 225,690 249,402 841,780 912,144
December 23, 2016 231,912 255,948 867,412 939,113
December 30, 2016 238,191 262,747 892,013 965,228
January 6, 2017 247,790 273,030 930,049 1,006,055
January 13, 2017 256,997 282,662 966,455 1,045,077
January 20, 2017 267,939 294,030 1,008,471 1,090,663
January 27, 2017 279,177 305,858 1,044,504 1,127,559
February 3, 2017 292,968 320,433 1,089,586 1,175,960
February 10, 2017 303,994 332,054 1,118,125 1,204,642
February 17, 2017 317,077 346,011 1,147,851 1,235,870
February 24, 2017 331,670 361,602 1,173,191 1,262,285
March 3, 2017 379,359 419,348 1,210,582 1,302,398
March 10, 2017 392,864 430,926 1,229,581 1,320,855

 

 

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