Drop in FAFSA completion rates statewide underscores critical need for schools to support students, especially students from low-income backgrounds, in completing financial aid forms

by | Feb 17, 2021 | Press Release

Ed Trust–NY relaunches interactive data tool and toolkit to help high schools better support students and families in the process 

NEW YORK – With data indicating that the percentage of high school seniors who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is down statewide from last year, The Education Trust–New York on Wednesday relaunched its online FAFSA Completion Tracker, which allows users to track FAFSA completion rates for schools across New York. 

Ed Trust–NY, in partnership with education organizations across the state, also released an updated version of the Financial Aid for College: High School Toolkit with new strategies to support high schools in helping all students complete financial aid applications before the end of the school year. 

The drop in FAFSA completion comes as many high schools, including many of those in the state’s largest urban school systems, continue to operate in a remote environment, potentially limiting access to school and collegcounselors and other resources that would be available if schools were operating in person. 

An analysis by Ed Trust–NY found that as of February 5, the percentage of high school seniors statewide who completed the FAFSA dropped 3 percentage points, something primarily driven by a disproportionate decrease in completions in schools with the greatest shares of students from low-income backgrounds where the rate dropped 7 percentage points. 


  Estimated FAFSA completion rates as of February 5, 2021  Estimated FAFSA completion rates as of February 5, 2020  Difference in estimated FAFSA completion rates 
Schools that serve the smallest shares of students who are low-income (0% to 20%)  57%  58%  -1% 
More than 20% to 40%  50%  52%  -2% 
More than 40% to 60%  44%  47%  -3% 
More than 60% to 80%  41%  45%  -4% 
Schools that serve the largest shares of students who are low-income (more than 80%)  36%  43%  -7% 
Statewide  45%  48%  -3% 

The drop in the FAFSA completion rate underscores the critical need for state leaders to uniquely support the Class of 2021 as they transition to college, the workforce, and other postsecondary opportunities in the midst of the pandemic. 

The New York State Education Department has already taken an important first step in issuing a memo describing specific strategies and supports that schools should have in place to support graduating high school seniors in these unprecedented circumstances, including ensuring instructional continuity, meeting students social and emotional needs, developing career and transition plans for students, and assisting with financial aid. 

And last week the State University of New York announced its new SUNY for All program—Big Dreams, Small Step—to close the college equity gap by providing additional resources for school and college counselors and students, including one-on-one application support and guidance for historically underrepresented students. SUNY will also partner with youth bureaus, public libraries, the New York State Counselor Association, and other state and county agencies, as well as reach out to high school seniors directly. The effort is in response to a drop of applications and enrollment across SUNY. 

National research shows that 90% of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA go to college immediately after graduation compared to just 55% of seniors who do not complete the FAFSA, and high schools can make a significant difference in making resources available to students who are from low-income backgrounds and first-generation college students complete the FAFSA and other financial aid for college applications. 

“This year’s high school seniors have had their education significantly interrupted by the coronavirus, but we cannot allow the ongoing crisis to derail the dreams of this next generation of New Yorkers,” said Francisco Miguel Araiza, director of research and policy for The Education Trust–New York. Students need the full support of educators, counselors, community-based organizations, school, district, and state leaders. Completing the FAFSA is crucial first step to making college affordable and accessible to all students, especially students who are from low-income backgroundsDuring the pandemic,  schools have a more important role than ever in helping guide students and families through this process.”  

“The ongoing pandemic is leaving too many high school seniors, particularly students from low-income background and students of color, without the support they need to complete the college application and financial aid process,” said Stan Litow, a member of the State University of New York Board of Trustees. “We as a community must act with the greatest urgency to support high school seniors and their families with the process so that all students can realize the dream of a higher education.” 

“HESC is proud to partner with The Education Trust–New York on this valuable resource to assist high schools in guiding their graduating seniors through the student financial aid process,” said Dr. Guillermo Linares, president of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation. “High school teachers and counselors play such a vital role in supporting students on their path to accessing and achieving a college education, especially for those who will be first-generation college students. The Toolkit will aid schools in their on-going support of these students.”

“As school leaders, our goal is not only to make sure that students finish school, but that they leave school prepared to succeed on the path to adulthood,” said Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “For many, that will include pursuing further education. We thank The Education Trust–New York for its leadership in helping more students to take advantage of all the financial resources available to support their efforts.”  

“Helping students get into college is not enough. If a student gets into a college but can’t pay for it, it’s just as bad as not getting into a college at all. Maybe worse,” said Sandy Jimenez, assistant director of training at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside. “Helping students file the FAFSA is an essential part of the work counselors and advisors do. A toolkit that helps counselors/advisors reach students and their families, virtually or live, is very important, especially now. Our students and their counselors need all the help they can get.” 

“As the pandemic continues, students face increasing challenges in pursuing higher education, including accessing financial aid which can be a definitive factor in determining the future of our students,” said Frankie Miranda, President of Hispanic Federation. “We are thankful to Ed TrustNY’s leadership for including HF and education partners in creating this step-by-step guide and a critical data tool that will make financial aid more tangible during these difficult times. Providing crucial informative resources in Spanish is essential for our Latinx families to have access to the financial aid process.” 

“We commend Ed TrustNY for creating this important resource, which will help schools better support immigrants—including our homeless and foster care students—in completing the FAFSA and other state financial aid applications,” said Andrea Ortiz, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Schools need comprehensive plans to help undocumented students and families complete financial aid applications, especially during this pandemic. This toolkit demystifies how to successfully apply for the NYS DREAM Act and all state financial aid applications, and gives schools best practices around collaborating with community-based organizations to ensure college access initiatives are culturally responsive.” 

The FAFSA Completion Tracker is a handy reference for school counselors and other college access professionals to garner administrative support for in-school programs to increase FAFSA completion rates,” said Stephanie Espina, immediate past president of New York State Association for College Admission Counseling. 

“The New York State School Counselors Association is pleased to support Ed Trust–NY in its work on The New York Financial Aid for College Completion Project,” said Bob Rotunda, executive director of the New York State School Counselors Association. “It is well established that FAFSA completion leads to better outcomes in college applications, admissions, and completions. This Toolkit is an invaluable resource to school counselors, who are deeply involved in this process.” 

The interactive data tool and toolkit are part of The New York Financial Aid for College Completion Project, which also includes The New York FAFSA Completion Challenge that recognizes schools for high FAFSA completion rates and for improvements in FAFSA completion rates. Twelve awards will be granted to schools across the state. Each award will consist of $750 granted to the winning high schools for the purpose of providing a scholarship to one of its students. 

Explore data for each high school in the state, read more about FAFSA completion strategies being used at New York schools, and find additional resources at NYFAFSAChallenge.org. Complete Challenge rules can be found here.