After June 1: Enrollment Challenges in the Wake of FAFSA Delays

Mike Keane Jun 14, 2024 Mike Keane SVP, Modeling + Client Strategy Persona The Influential and Resilient Energizer

Now that June 1 has passed, Fall 2024 new undergraduate enrollment outcomes for many institutions are coming into focus. Entering the final few months of a cycle that began with the end of race-conscious admission and was then dominated by the chaotic rollout of the new FAFSA, we have an opportunity to reflect on both immediate and potentially lasting impacts.

The most significant and immediate impact was on students and their families, many of whom waited months beyond typical deadlines for critical information about federal, state, and institutional need-based aid. Carnegie’s FAFSA Impact research report found that as late as early May, nearly half of all respondents were still waiting on a financial aid offer from at least one institution.

Comprehensive enrollment data and aggregate reports from sources like the National Student Clearinghouse this Fall will tell the clearest story about the impact on students. However, it is inevitable that we will identify gaps and populations of students who did not enroll in college because they lacked information about aid and affordability—the single most important component of their decision-making.

In addition to the immediate and profound impact on students and their families, especially those who rely on need-based aid to fund their postsecondary education, we have identified several other impacts emerging from our work with client institutions over the past 9+ months.

This Cycle Has Exhausted Already-Drained Enrollment Professionals

A consistent theme in our discussions with partners in both admission and financial aid offices is fatigue. After several cycles already characterized by increased burnout, enrollment offices were further stretched this year by extended periods of uncertainty and disruption.

While institutions were not responsible for the delays, in many cases, their staff bore the brunt of student and parent frustration and anger, and efforts to mitigate the impact of the FAFSA failures meant longer hours for teams already pinched by turnover.

Yields Were Often Lower Despite Strong Interest and Engagement Indicators

As the number of high school graduates has flattened or even begun to decline in some regions, application and admit volume is not always a strong signal of growth in unique students. Much of the application growth over the past 10+ years is due to more applications per student, not an increase in the number of students.

To guard against false optimism, we track a wide variety of interest indicators, including things like email engagement rates and attendance at both virtual and in-person events. With few exceptions, overall engagement and engagement activity per student were up this year, even at institutions that eventually experienced significant impacts to yield (2-3+ point declines relative to the prior year).

That pattern reinforces the profound disruption of the FAFSA failures. When yields drop despite engagement indicators improving, this suggests that students were unable to make enrollment decisions—or timely enrollment decisions—despite genuine interest in institutions.

Yield Impacts Were Not Limited to Students With Financial Need

As the extent of the problems with the new FAFSA became clear in late 2023, we anticipated potentially severe impacts to enrollment for lower-income and first-generation students unable to file and receive timely notification of their eligibility for critical federal, state, and institutional need-based aid. Unfortunately, we do have evidence of that impact across different institutional sizes and types, but we have also seen widespread evidence of disruption to yield for more affluent students—students who indicate they will not file the FAFSA or who filed the FAFSA and have very high Student Aid Index values.

The likely explanation for these patterns—disruption to decision-making even for students and families who did not anticipate receiving need-based aid—lies with changes to institutional processes and deadlines.

Many institutions pushed to their waitlists earlier and more aggressively, awarded more generous merit aid, or both as they sought to secure enrollments leading up to deposit deadlines. While those changes might be modest at individual institutions, across hundreds of colleges and universities, they can shift patterns more widely, and the students who benefit most from these disruptions are often those with a stronger ability and willingness to pay.

The Chaotic FAFSA Rollout Will Make Yield Modeling and Aid Optimization More Challenging Next Year

Yield and aid optimization models rely on identifying student-level attributes persuasively associated with student behavior. FAFSA filing (and the timing of FAFSA filing) is a consistent and powerful feature of these models—both as a signal of students’ continued interest in the institution and as a way to identify their potential eligibility for need-based gift aid.

If the FAFSA returns to an October 1 launch for the 2025-26 academic year and if students and parents return to typical filing timelines, it will be difficult to train models on 2024-25 filing patterns and then apply those models to 2025-26 behavior.

There are ways to address these challenges, but similar to adjusting to disrupted campus visit engagement after the Fall 2020 cycle, these accommodations may make for weaker models and less confident recommendations without a thorough assessment of the “what, when, and why” of student-level behavior.

In Summary

For many institutions, the Fall 2024 cycle appeared to offer a return to “normal” as the impacts of COVID-19 on enrollment began to fade and student patterns affected by test-optional policies began to stabilize, a process that took nearly four years.

Even the impact of the end of race-conscious admission in late summer 2023 was likely to be limited to a relatively small subset of more selective colleges and universities that considered race and ethnicity in the admission process.

Then, the failed rollout of the new FAFSA—experienced in multiple stages that worsened over time—cast its shadow over this cycle in ways that we are still uncovering. It appears students, families, and institutions will need to wait a bit longer for a return to a “normal” year for admission and aid.

Our team is staying on top of the latest developments and is here to support you. Whether you need assistance adapting your enrollment strategies or understanding the latest insights, we are here to help.

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