The federal government recently produced a set of tables, one for each state, listing the number of FAFSAs filed by high school as of the end of February, June, and December.
The numbers in these tables are particularly interesting given that, although the federal government has lax deadline for filing (only requiring that a FAFSA be submitted by the close of the following academic year), many states and individual colleges only guarantee aid to those students submitting FAFSAs before “priority deadlines” that are typically much earlier. In some states, a FAFSA submitted just a few days late can mean a loss of nearly half of a student’s potential need-based grant aid.
In some ways Washington has been incredibly proactive on the financial aid front. First, the evergreen state offers some of the most generous need-based awards in the country, providing more per student than any other state with grants of up to $10,868 at Washington colleges and universities.
Second, the College Goal Washington program holds events throughout the state, supported partly by volunteers, to increase FAFSA filing by early February. A solid, proactive step that more states should take.
Yet part of the reason that current levels of outreach are necessary, and possibly still inadequate, is that the state’s newest financial aid program, College Bound (which provides a commitment of college funding to 7th and 8th grade students in foster care or eligible for free/reduced price lunch) has a particularly early deadline. The February 1st cutoff during the spring before the fall of attendance is of the earliest in the country’s earliest, and is nearly a year and half before the federal FAFSA filing deadline.
Confusingly, many Washington institutions offer their own need-based aid, have their own priority filing deadlines, and typically only guarantee those funds to students filing before the priority deadline. Some share the February 1 target date with College Bound, but, many are pegged dates throughout the spring from February 1 to April 15, making a concerted statewide communication push all the more challenging.
Given that, I thought it might be interesting to try to make the new high school FAFSA filing data a bit more digestible (through some visualization) and contexualized against other state data sources (all from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, although painfully spread throughout the site). After merging the data sets, specifying zip codes for all of the schools, generating some variables for school demographics and grad rates, and pulling in some additional district-staffing level information to get the FTE counselors per 100 students, I was able to produce the interactive map below and attempt some regression analysis with the new data.
The map focuses on a particular high school-level ratio: the number of FAFSAs completed by February 28 (the earliest date the government provides; this is before most institutional priority deadlines in Washington but after the College Bound deadline) divided by total FAFSAs submitted by June (a loose proxy for planning to attend college in the Fall). The closer to 1, the more FAFSAs are likely getting submitted early enough to receive state and institutional aid. Although I considered using 12th grade enrollment or December submission numbers as the denominator, using the former might overemphasize the influence of graduation rates and the latter might capture students intending to begin in the spring semester. What I’m really interested in is: Given that early filing means more access to aid, how much variation is there between schools in rates of filing by the “priority deadline period” by students intending to attend college the following fall ?
The circle size corresponds with the total number of FAFSAs submitted by June, and the color scale from red to green corresponds with the rate of Feb 28 filing. The sliders allow you to adjust the schools shown, and you can hover over individual institutions or select subsets to dig deeper. The default view is zoomed in a bit to focus on the greater Seattle area, but the rest of the state is there if you pull back.
The short answer? There’s a lot of variation, and it isn’t explained away the school characteristics that you might guess. Neither “Counselors per 100 students” or “% of underrepresented minorities” were significantly predictive in the models I tried. A school’s graduation rate was significant, but without much power- a 1% increase in graduation is correlated with about a .03% increase in the filing rate (There are some basic scatter plots on the tabbed page of the visual below to provide a sense of the data). All told, even after adjusting a bit and removing outliers, these variables explain only about 20% of the variation in school filing rates.
That has real implications for programs like College Goal Washington, but also for individual high schools and colleges in Washington state. Too often the focus is on supporting applicants who seek out help rather than proactively targeting students in need of guidance. Particularly in states like Washington, where extensive need-based aid is paired with early deadlines, students and institutions alike have a great deal to lose. Washington’s post-secondary institutions might do well to spend some time noting the “red” schools above within a few hours’ drive… and then perhaps putting in a request for the college van.
Have insight on the variation, other states worth exploring, and ways to make the red dots green? Share them below or on Twitter @aroundlearning