Which States Search for FAFSA Information the Most?

In advance of this week’s National Spelling Bee finals, Google released data on the word that people located in each state searched “how to spell” on a regular basis. (Kudos to South Dakota for being so interested in how to spell “college!”) I used the Google Trends tool to search for how often people in each state searched for information on the FAFSA over the last five years and one year, as well as how often they searched for the “FASFA”—a pronunciation that is like fingernails on the chalkboard for many folks in higher education.

Between 2012 and 2016, interest in both the FAFSA (in blue) and the FASFA (in red) followed a pretty typical pattern, as shown in the first graph below. Searches picked up in frequency on January 1 (the first day to file for the new application year) before peaking around March 1 (when many state aid deadlines occur) and falling off dramatically in September. But in the 2016-17 application cycle (the second graph), searches spiked near October 1 (the new first date for filing the FAFSA) with a smaller peak around January 1 and an equal peak around March 1. This shows how the early FAFSA changes did reach students and their families.

Note: The “FAFSA” is in blue and the “FASFA” is in red.

I also looked at search intensity by state over the last year, with the most intense state receiving a value of 100. Mississippi had the highest intensity of FAFSA searches, while Oregon’s value of 42 was less than half of Mississippi’s value. Louisiana and Arkansas tied for the highest FASFA value (30), while Minnesota (7) had the lowest value. Looking at FAFSA-to-FASFA search ratios (a proxy for how commonly people searched for the wrong term), Louisiana had the lowest ratio of 3.07—indicating the highest frequency of incorrect searches. Meanwhile, Minnesotans were the least likely to type “FASFA” relative to “FAFSA,” with a ratio of 10.

FAFSA and FASFA search intensity, May 31, 2016 to May 31, 2017.

Mississippi 100 28 3.57
Arkansas 95 30 3.17
Oklahoma 93 25 3.72
Louisiana 92 30 3.07
New Mexico 89 26 3.42
West Virginia 88 23 3.83
Idaho 87 18 4.83
Kentucky 87 23 3.78
Alabama 84 22 3.82
Tennessee 82 20 4.10
Indiana 80 22 3.64
Vermont 79 13 6.08
Maryland 79 18 4.39
Hawaii 78 9 8.67
South Dakota 78 14 5.57
Alaska 77 15 5.13
California 77 14 5.50
Wyoming 77 23 3.35
Utah 77 15 5.13
Montana 77 11 7.00
Arizona 76 18 4.22
Delaware 75 25 3.00
Rhode Island 74 18 4.11
Iowa 74 18 4.11
North Dakota 74 9 8.22
South Carolina 73 19 3.84
North Carolina 72 18 4.00
Virginia 72 15 4.80
Connecticut 72 16 4.50
Florida 72 18 4.00
Nebraska 72 13 5.54
Ohio 71 18 3.94
Missouri 71 20 3.55
Nevada 71 16 4.44
New Jersey 71 15 4.73
Maine 71 17 4.18
Pennsylvania 70 17 4.12
Minnesota 70 7 10.00
New Hampshire 68 15 4.53
Michigan 67 17 3.94
Washington 66 12 5.50
New York 66 15 4.40
Wisconsin 66 10 6.60
Georgia 65 18 3.61
Illinois 63 13 4.85
Massachusetts 60 12 5.00
Colorado 60 15 4.00
Texas 56 14 4.00
Kansas 54 14 3.86
District of Columbia 45 11 4.09
Oregon 42 8 5.25

Source: Google

Google search data can have the potential to provide some interesting insights about public perceptions and awareness of higher education, yet they have been used relatively infrequently. If there are any terms you would like me to dig into, let me know in the comments section!

How Popular Was the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?

The financial aid application season for the 2017-18 academic year started out on a high note for current and prospective students. Thanks to the adoption of “prior prior year” or “early FAFSA,” students could file the FAFSA beginning October 1 instead of the following January 1 for the 2017-18 academic year. Students took advantage of this change in large numbers, with about 5.4 million students completing the FAFSA before the previous opening date of January 1.

But FAFSA filing hit a significant roadblock in early March when the federal government quietly pulled access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which allowed students to quickly and seamlessly transfer their tax records from the IRS to the FAFSA. The tool was down for nearly a week before the IRS issued a statement explaining that the site had been taken offline due to security concerns—and now it looks like the Data Retrieval Tool will be down until next fall at the earliest. Students can still complete the FAFSA by inputting information from their 2015 tax returns, but this is an extra hurdle for many students to jump.

It is possible that the DRT outage is already affecting FAFSA filing rates. Nick Hillman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (one of the best higher ed finance researchers out there) and his sharp grad students Valerie Crespin-Trujillo and Ellie Bruckner) have been tracking FAFSA filing trends among high school students since the start of this application cycle. Their latest look at filing trends (which they update every Friday) shows the following, which suggests a possible dip due to the DRT outage.

One question that hasn’t been addressed yet is how many students were actually using the DRT when it was pulled. Unlike the great data that Federal Student Aid makes available on FAFSA filing trends, far less data are available on DRT usage. But I was able to find two data points that provide some insights about how many FAFSA filers used the DRT. The first data point came from Federal Student Aid’s 2016 annual financial report, which listed the DRT as a priority for the department. As the highlighted text below shows, about half of all applicants who filed taxes used the DRT in the 2014-15 filing season.

A tidbit of more recent data comes from a presentation that Federal Student Aid made to a conference of financial aid professionals last fall. As shown below, 56% of the 2.2 million FAFSA filers in October 2016 used the DRT. Early FAFSA filers may have different characteristics than filers across the whole application cycle, but this again shows the popularity of the DRT.

Another important group of students use the Data Retrieval Tool—students who are enrolling in income-driven repayment plans. These students have to certify their income on an annual basis (and a majority of borrowers already struggle to do this on time), which becomes more time-consuming without the DRT. It’s still possible for students to do by submitting documentation of income, but the loss of the DRT makes that a lengthier process. I was unable to find any information about DRT usage among people in income-driven repayment programs, but my gut instinct is that it’s a fairly high percentage of borrowers.

The bottom line here—the lengthy outage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool doesn’t mean that students can’t apply for federal financial aid or income-driven student loan repayment programs. But it does create an additional roadblock for millions of students, their families, and financial aid offices to navigate. Only time will tell whether the DRT outage is associated with lower FAFSA or income-driven repayment filing rates, but a small negative effect seems plausible.

Thanks to Carlo Salerno of Strada Education for inspiring me to dig into the numbers. Twitter conversations can be useful, after all!

Why I Support the File Once FAFSA Act

This year will mark the biggest change to the federal financial aid process in quite a few years, with students being able to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2017-18 academic year on October 1, 2016 instead of January 1, 2017 using 2015 tax data. This change, known as prior prior year (PPY) or early FAFSA, has the potential to give more students information about their federal financial aid eligibility around when they are applying to colleges. My research on the topic (thanks to the generous support and assistance of my friends at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators) found that most students will see similar Pell Grant awards under PPY than under the current system, which helped alleviate concerns about what PPY would mean for both the federal budget and financial aid offices. However, I remain concerned that colleges will not notify students of institutional aid earlier than under current rules due to concerns about their financial aid budgets.

While prior prior year is a step in the right direction for students and their families, there really isn’t a good reason why many students have to fill out the FAFSA every year. While the U.S. Department of Education claims that it takes the average student 21 minutes to file the FAFSA, this number is undoubtedly higher for students with more complex family situations or students whose parents struggle to navigate the form due to limited English proficiency or the FAFSA’s complicated instructions. As a result, an estimated 10% of Pell-eligible students who remained enrolled in college fail to refile the FAFSA.

In 2013, I wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education with Sara Goldrick-Rab (now at Temple University) titled “Change FAFSA Now.” In that piece, we argued for one-time FAFSA filing to reduce the burden on both students and the U.S. Department of Education. Today, I am happy to see a piece of legislation called the File Once FAFSA Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), that would allow dependent Pell Grant-eligible students to file the FAFSA just once as long as they remain dependents. (Students with large changes in family income could get their expected family contribution (EFC) changed by talking with their financial aid office.)

While I am pleased to support the legislation, I would like to see two additional groups of students become eligible for a one-time FAFSA. The first group is those students who file the FAFSA just to receive a federal unsubsidized loan. All students attending participating colleges can receive these loans regardless of financial need, so making students repeatedly file the FAFSA just to get these loans makes little sense. This would be particularly beneficial for graduate students, who can no longer receive any federal subsidized loans.

The second group of students who should become eligible is independent students with dependents of their own. In the 2011-12 academic year, 61% of students in this category had an EFC of zero—reflecting a large amount of financial need. This compares to just 24% of dependent students having a zero EFC. Moreover, in a 2015 article, I showed that over 98% of independent students without dependents who had a zero EFC one year and refiled the FAFSA two years later received a Pell Grant that year. Therefore, extending the one-time FAFSA to this category of students make sense.

The idea of a one-time FAFSA should garner bipartisan support, as evidenced by a similar idea being a part of former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s higher education proposal. I welcome and support Rep. Scott’s proposal as a first step to helping more students whose family circumstances don’t change much while they are in college spend time doing something more productive than completing the FAFSA.

Simplifying the FAFSA–How Far Can We Go?

It is painfully obvious to students, their families, and financial aid administrators alike that the current system of determining federal financial aid eligibility is incredibly complex and time-consuming. Although there should be broad support for changes to the financial aid system, any progress has been halting at best. I have devoted much of my time to researching and discussing potential changes to the financial aid system. Below is some of my work, going from relatively minor to major changes.

I’ve been working on an ongoing study with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators examining the extent to which students’ financial aid packages would change if income data from one year earlier (the “prior-prior year”) than is currently used were to be used in the FAFSA calculations. Although a full report from this study won’t be out until sometime next month, here is a nice summary of the work from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The key point from this work is that, since family resources don’t change that much for students with the greatest financial need, students could file their FAFSA several months earlier using income data from the prior-prior year without a substantial change in aid targeting.

Under a prior-prior year system, students would still have to file the FAFSA each year. Given the fact that many students don’t see that much income volatility, there is a case to be made that students should only have to file the FAFSA once—at the beginning of college—unless their family or financial circumstances change by a considerable margin. In a piece hot off the virtual presses at the Chronicle, Sara Goldrick-Rab and I discuss why it would be better for many students to only have to file the FAFSA once.  I would like to know more about the costs and benefits of such a program (weighing the benefits of reduced complexity and administrative compliance costs versus the likelihood of higher aid spending), but the net fiscal cost is likely to be small or even positive.

So let’s take this one step further. Do we even need to have all students file the FAFSA? Sara and I have looked at the possibility of automatically granting students the maximum Pell Grant if anyone in their family qualifies for means-tested benefits (primarily free and reduced price lunches). We detail the results of our fiscal analysis and simulation in an Institute for Research on Poverty working paper, where we find that such a program is likely to remain reasonably well targeted and pass a cost-benefit test in the long run.

There is a broad menu of options available to simplify the FAFSA, from giving students more time to complete the form to getting rid of it altogether. Let’s talk more about these options (plus many more) and actually get something done that can help all stakeholders in the higher education arena.