Enrollment Blog

Why early FAFSA means early effort for both students and schools

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

The recruiting maxim, “the earlier, the better,” appears to be holding true during this application season—a special season that is, itself, all about “earliness” with the first October FAFSA creating the opportunity for everyone to turn back their financial aid clocks three full months.

Enrollment teams have been buzzing with questions about the influence of the accelerated FAFSA calendar:

  • Will students file earlier?
  • How many?
  • Where?
  • How will changes in student behavior shape college classes this year?
  • How will changes alter schools’ strategic plans for next year?

With a month of data now available to us, my research team collected real-time results from 171 schools to provide our partners with early insights that are based on student actions—rather than simply speculative studies of student “intention” released earlier.

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Our Royall data confirms that the early FAFSA has sped up student filing rates, given us a more nuanced glimpse into student filing motives, and validated once more the fact that early senior marketing campaigns provide the greatest gains.

We suspect these gains could—and should—motivate schools to accelerate their communications, application, and financial aid offer schedules.

A sizable shift to early filing

Survey participants indicated they have, on average, already received 32% of the total FAFSA filings they garnered for the whole of last year’s class. To put it another way, this year schools have already received nearly one-third of last year’s total. The surge in early FAFSA filings this fall spans all regions, as well as all levels of school selectivity, with none reporting less than 20% of last year’s total already submitted.

Yet, while our surveyed schools are, in aggregate, experiencing a wave of early FAFSA filings, we also found considerable variation across school-selectivity classifications—distinctions that allow us to make inferences about students’ motivations for FAFSA filing.

We found, for example, that private colleges and universities have received 35% of last year’s FAFSA total, while public schools have garnered only 20%. This disparity probably reflects students’ belief that they cannot afford private school tuition and are therefore more intentional about their pursuit of financial aid at those institutions.

Early application marketing gets greatest gains

Thirty-five institutions in our survey ran Royall application marketing campaigns, some in the summer and some in the fall. Those that launched earlier (June through August) have seen FAFSA submission rates more than two times higher than those of their later-launching counterparts—that is, those schools that waited until the fall months of September through November to start their marketing efforts.

As a percentage of last year’s total, schools that contacted seniors in summer campaigns have garnered 43%, while schools that first marketed to seniors in the fall have reaped only 21%.

This sharp contrast in launch timing results confirms our long-standing belief that early outreach drives better response rates, a correlation that also points to our finding that applications deployed early garnered a greater FAFSA lift than those that did not.

Early FAFSA prompts earlier offers

Because our past research foreshadowed these higher FAFSA filing rates for schools launching summer campaigns, we set out to determine whether schools would also adjust the timing of their aid offers. The answer is yes and flags what will likely be a gradual shift in higher education to a new offer timeline.

We found that 57% intend to communicate need-based aid offers from two to eight weeks earlier than last year, and 30% indicated that they will include need-based aid offers in their admission offer letters.

Our research—the first based on real student actions rather than measures of students’ future intentions—paints a clear picture of the impact of “earliness” in college enrollment management: early FAFSA availability stimulates early student FAFSA filings that should prompt institutions’ earlier marketing campaigns, application deadlines, and financial aid offers.

It is our hope that the acceleration of these calendars will enable schools to both optimize their aid dollars and better serve their prospective students.

When it comes to making important choices, the more time, the better.

Read the full survey findings

Dig deeper into Royall's data and see the complete results from this latest flash poll in our white paper "Early FAFSA/ISIR Activity."

Download the white paper


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