More High-School Seniors Apply for College Financial Aid, Just Shy of Prepandemic Levels

After two consecutive pandemic years when fewer and fewer students applied for federal financial aid, the number of high-school seniors who submitted forms ticked up slightly this year—though analysts warn it might not translate to an immediate rise in college enrollment.

About 92,000 more students in the class of 2022 filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, as of July 1, up 4.6% from last year, according to a National College Attainment Network analysis of Federal Student Aid data. That’s just shy of prepandemic completion rates, down about 1.7 percentage points from this time in 2019.

The Fafsa application unlocks opportunities for federal grants, work-study funds and student loans, and is also often required for state or institutional aid.

As schools reopened for in-person instruction, seniors had more access to college counseling this year than in the previous pandemic years, including Fafsa filing assistance, said Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives at NCAN, a nonprofit aimed at closing equity gaps in higher education.

Completed Fafsa forms are up by 9.1% year over year at high schools serving large populations of low-income students, NCAN figures show. They are also up by about 9% at high schools with high populations of students of color, nearly double the national completion growth rate.

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Mr. DeBaun said the increase in Fafsa completion is a good first step toward restoring enrollment patterns nationwide, as many students can’t go to college without the funds. But even with this year’s uptick, the strong labor market is likely holding back a return to prepandemic college-enrollment levels.

“With starting wages still quite high in a lot of areas, that can pull students from the margin away from a college-going pathway and toward the workforce,” Mr. DeBaun said.

One factor driving the increase in Fafsa numbers is that more states are mandating that seniors fill out the forms, in hopes of nudging more toward college after graduation.

A handful of states mandate that high-school seniors submit federal or state aid applications as a graduation requirement, with Texas and Alabama joining the ranks this past school year. Those two states account for about 60% of the national year-over-year gains, driving an additional 55,000-plus completions.

“There were students that would qualify but couldn’t get the forms completed,” said Margaret Gunter, director of communications and government relations at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. “We hear all the time, ‘It’s way too complicated.’”

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The Fafsa is often considered an early indicator of how many students are looking to enroll in college. States with Fafsa-completion policies might make it more difficult to use the Fafsa to predict trends this year and in years to come, said Eddy Conroy, a senior policy adviser for higher education at New America, a public-policy think tank.

“You’re capturing a larger number of students with no intention of going to college,” Dr. Conroy said. “That might start to make Fafsa-completion data less useful as a predictor of how many students are applying.”

California, which has the highest number of enrolled public high-school students in the country, will start in the 2022-23 school year requiring local educational agencies to confirm that their seniors completed either the Fafsa or the California Dream Act application. The latter form allows students who cannot receive federal aid to apply for state financial aid and scholarships.

Mr. DeBaun said the new law has the potential to shift national Fafsa completion trends, given the size of the state.