After a two-year slump in college enrollment, there’s at least one early indicator of a reversal ahead: Financial aid application submissions are up.

The latest federal data, tracked by the National College Attainment Network, or NCAN, show 4.6% more high school seniors completed the college financial aid application compared with 2020.

The application, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is key to accessing financial aid that includes Pell Grants, scholarships and federal student loans. Rates of completion among high school seniors typically correlate with freshman college enrollment in the fall.

Prior to the pandemic, the FAFSA completion rate was at 53.8% for the class of 2019. But that rate started dipping in 2020 and hit a low of 49.8% among the class of 2021. The latest spring 2022 data on college enrollments also showed a two-year decline of 7.4% (about 1.3 million students), according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

But the most recent data NCAN analyzed show the rate has increased to 52.1% among the class of 2022. It’s a welcome sign for those who fear pandemic-fueled enrollment declines will be permanent.

What’s going right

Boosts in aid applications are highest among schools with high populations of low-income and minority students. Urban schools saw gains, as well. Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives, says he thinks a more “normal” in-person school experience is making a difference.

“The theory I’m working on is that being back in school reconnected students with a lot of in-school supports,” says DeBaun. By supports, he means in-person interactions with guidance counselors, teachers and peers, which can make the difference between submitting the FAFSA or not.

The five places in the country with the highest completion rates — Louisiana, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, Illinois and Texas — showcase the range of successful approaches.

Tennessee has one of the more successful free college programs, the Tennessee Promise, that requires the FAFSA in order to access. But that might not tell the whole story, since other states, like Washington, also have free college programs but continue to lag in FAFSA completion.

Meanwhile, Colorado, Illinois and Texas have Universal FAFSA mandates that require applications in order to graduate. Texas, the state with the newest mandate, saw a 25.9% increase in completion over the last year. A few other states have mandates, too, including California, Alabama and Maryland — all of which have had higher overall completion rates compared with other states.

In Washington, D.C., a districtwide FAFSA initiative supports and encourages public high schools and community organizations to increase aid application rates. There are even awards for the most successful schools.

Keep your optimism cautious

Despite across-the-board gains, the 2022 FAFSA completion rate is still not quite on par with pre-pandemic rates.

And the latest enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is not yet available. Neither is the latest data on FAFSA renewals. The previously available federal data through Sept. 15, 2021, show 1% fewer renewals for 2020-21 compared with 2019-20, according to NCAN. DeBaun says it’s possible to see this previous dip in renewals bounce back.

Students have been pulled out of the classroom and into the workforce by plentiful entry-level jobs that don’t require a degree and come with higher-than-usual wages, DeBaun says. But those jobs and wages might not be durable in the long run, and at least some of those workers could eventually land back in school.

“Hot economies don’t last forever, and that pendulum will swing back to where we’ll have employees on the margins who will go back to school to retool, to upskill,” DeBaun says.

Employment opportunity isn’t the only thing keeping students out of the classroom: A 2022 Gallup-Lumina Foundation study found that among those who were enrolled during the pandemic, but left without a degree, cost was the most significant factor in students’ reasons for not currently attending.

How to complete the FAFSA

Completing the FAFSA is crucial if you attend college — even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for need-based aid. You need to submit each year you plan to attend. The FAFSA is open now for fall 2022. The 2023-24 FAFSA form will open Oct. 1.

To complete the FAFSA:

  • Follow the instructions on StudentAid.gov to create your Federal Student Aid ID.
  • Gather your documents needed to complete the form (here’s a checklist).
  • Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your prior-prior year tax information.
  • List up to 10 schools you want to apply to.