In 2015, former president, Barack Obama took executive action to allow the use of prior-prior year (PPY) tax information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Along with that action, the Department of Education moved the FAFSA availability date from January 1 to October 1 for the upcoming award year. Beginning with the FAFSA year 2017-2018, students could complete their application two months earlier than in previous years.
At the time, there was a significant amount of discussion at the institutional level across the country of how admissions and financial aid “deadlines” or “priority filing dates” may change as a result. With these FAFSA changes, should (or would) admissions/financial aid dates change, too?
When the change was made, The Fiscal Times, reported, “While there was no federal requirement that schools change their aid or application deadlines in response to the shift in FAFSA dates, about a fifth of schools surveyed by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said that it would impact their admissions calendar.”1
In 2017, Inside Higher Ed published another article on the topic, leading with a paragraph that said, “An overwhelming majority of colleges and universities did not change priority aid deadlines in response to an earlier financial aid cycle last year, according to a survey of member institutions by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.”2
I admit it. I geek out over all things connected with financial aid. When this change was instituted, I can remember multiple discussions with colleagues and peers on the topic. At the time, there was lots of uncertainty revolving around financial aid brought on by shifts in regulations and changing verification requirements.
Most people in the financial aid community were pleased about the changes. But, there were concerns. Discussions across the country occurred, debating whether institutional and state deadlines should or would change. When talking to my colleague, Nick Balk, enrollmentFUEL’s Vice President of University Partnerships – Northeast Region, he also remembers the discussions. At the time the regulations changed, he was serving as the Director of Admissions at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and directly involved in the financial aid process. He said, “At my former school, I was always intrigued by the strategy of deadlines. I looked at other schools and tried to figure out if competitors had shifted or changed their admissions and financial aid due dates. I also considered if any changes made would influence conversion.”
High school counselors are increasingly involved in guiding students through the financial aid process. When asked what she thought about the shift in deadlines, Alicia Grande, a College and Career Counselor at Justice High School in Virginia, said, “It’s made it easier for students to apply, yet more complicated getting an aid package. Deadlines have changed, and colleges are wanting documents earlier than ever before. It’s really important to figure out how to best educate parents on trends and figure out ways to help students get the most aid.”
As I had these conversations, I became intrigued. I wondered what was the impact of PPY and FAFSA opening dates across the country on state financial aid deadlines/priority dates?
I decided to examine information, starting with what was provided on the FAFSA for all 50 states regarding financial aid deadlines before and after the change to Early FAFSA.
Most states across the country made no significant changes to their financial aid deadlines. Only five made actual deadline changes for state aid, and 12 states made changes that were “file your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1.” For more detailed information, check out this NASFAA News link: https://www.nasfaa.org/early_fafsa_map.3
So . . . what was the impact of the change on college admissions deadlines?
Like the data nerd I am, I was excited to dive into the past and compare admissions dates to the current state of admissions priority dates and deadlines. Equipped with a Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges from 2016 (yes, they actually had one on eBay), I embarked on a quest to find an answer to the question, “How did admissions deadlines change as a result of the October 1 date change on the FAFSA?”
I examined 50 randomly chosen moderately selective and 10 highly selective U.S. colleges and universities from across the country and compared Early Action, Early Decision, and Regular Decision dates from 2016 to the 2020 deadlines. My study revealed no movement of admissions deadlines to earlier dates for colleges and universities for either the moderately selective or the highly selective institutions when comparing 2016 to 2020.
An important factor of note, however, is the movement of admissions deadlines for several of the moderately selective colleges/universities to later in the cycle, or a trend towards rolling admission altogether. Approximately half of the institutions moved at least one deadline to later in the cycle or converted over to rolling admission.
Could changing demography factors be contributing to some of these deadline cycle shifts? Are flexible learning options like hybrid or online learning, putting pressure on these institutions to be increasingly nimble in the recruitment of new students? As we are aware, schools are facing increasing pressures to maximize enrollments and tuition revenue.
I asked Jacquelyn “Jacqui” Elliott, enrollmentFUEL’s president, for input on this. In her response, she noted the following: “I often think higher education professionals as an industry expect major changes at a national level to impact schools to do things differently. However, in my experience, unless there is a requirement of some sort to force change, schools will often remain on the same course of action—a type of ‘if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it mentality.’ Often, these changes are just fodder for ivory tower rhetoric, but little changes where the rubber meets the road.”
Jacqui added, “I also think that sweeping national movements are exactly that—sweeping. But, generally speaking, when a VPEM has to make a decision, almost every decision will be school-based, steeped in the moment of that place and time, rather than a national conversation that is often political and theoretical. Schools and their leaders need to react to their own political, environmental, economic, and technological (PEST) issues at a granular level in order to meet goals and generate revenue.”
I did explore one other question. What was the impact on institutional financial aid deadlines?
I randomly investigated 30 colleges and universities from across the country and found 9 out of 30 (30%) moved their institutional financial aid deadlines earlier in the cycle from 2016 to 2020. Of the nine colleges with earlier financial aid deadlines, some dates moved by only 15 days earlier, but most (5) shifted at least a month earlier in the cycle, and two moved their dates more than a month ahead in the 2019-2020 award year. While we don’t specifically know what factors contributed to the shift in the earlier dates, it appears that perhaps the shift to Early FAFSA could have impacted the change.
Digging into history left me with this thought. Enrollment departments are recruiting a generation of debt-averse students. There is increasing competition in the market for top students. For those reasons, I believe there is value in examining your financial aid deadlines, comparing them to competitors, and determining if any changes should be made, either for parity or competitive advantage.
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