Thanks to the fed’s updated Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion reports, school administrators and policymakers finally can wash their hands of unreliable student-reported data.
The new numbers from the Department of Education give a FAFSA count for public and private schools, state-by-state and school-by-school. It’s enough to make any analyst starry-eyed.
Students who complete FAFSAs are more likely to receive financial aid and therefore are more likely to enroll in college. Beyond the raw numbers of students who fill out the forms, the school-by-school lists can target schools that do—or do not—help their students navigate the financial aid process. Last month, Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman wrote here about state numbers and Washington, D.C.’s, high school FAFSA numbers.
But before data wonks start to swoon, there is a caveat: The tool’s automated recording process has some quirks.
That isn’t to say that the tool is not immensely useful. It does what it was intended to do. According to a Department of Education spokesman, this data was designed to help high school counselors increase the number of students going to college. Now counselors have access to real-time data to track their students’ progress toward FAFSA completion. In this context, it’s a perfect example of “data-driven practice” in schools.
But the database is not perfect, particularly if we want to use it for comparative analysis.
1. Aggregated totals are based on student-reported school names and cities, and the reporting is not consistent: To assign a FAFSA to a high school’s count, the data tool must first attach the school to its federal ID number. The system relies on matching the student-reported school name and city with an ID number. Some schools, however, slip through the cracks. Take YES Prep, for example. This charter-management organization operates several high schools in Houston. Since YES Prep is famous for their 99 percent college matriculation rate, I was surprised to find that their FAFSA completion rates fell between 14 and 69 percent. I called the Department of Education to investigate, and it turns out some of their FAFSAs went astray. When five students from YES Prep-East End wrote “YES Prep Public Schools East End Campus,” they were not caught by the automated system. And when a student doesn’t live in the same city as his or her school, it can create other problems: Two students at YES Prep-Southwest wrote their hometown suburb, Katy, Texas, on their FAFSA, rather than the school’s city, Houston. Those forms were never linked to the school.
2. Not every school is eligible for inclusion in the data: Some private schools and small schools won’t appear in the report. Private schools do not have federal ID numbers unless they’ve opted into the system, and schools must have at least five responses to be included in the data. This five-student minimum is a legally required privacy measure and not a limitation of the system, per se. It does however require that an analyst consider the relative class sizes of different high schools. Consider a rural school with a graduating class of only six students. It would need an 83 percent completion rate to be included in the data. A 66 percent completion rate, or four completed FAFSAs, excludes the school from the list entirely, leaving analysts to wonder whether any students completed a FAFSA. A school with 500 graduating seniors that is excluded from the data is another story entirely.
3. Not all high school seniors are reflected in the data: The data assumes that all students are 18 years old. Forms from students older than 18 aren’t counted. This is a problem for schools such as Next Step/El Proximo Paso Public Charter School, which Aldeman called out in his blog. The data show that none of the school’s 120 graduating seniors completed a FAFSA in the last two years. However, this charter school is a GED-granting institution, and for the last two years, all of its graduating seniors have been over 18 years old. Undocumented students, as well as those who are not first-time FAFSA applicants, are also excluded.
So, what’s an analyst to do?
Without redesigning the database—or its purpose entirely—there are a few ways that the Department of Education and school administrators can mitigate the effects of data limitations in the current way we track FAFSA completions, making the information more reliable for school staff and analysts alike.
1. Include a drop-down menu for high school selection on the online FAFSA: The vast majority of FAFSAs are completed online. Allowing students to click on the name of their schools, rather than entering them manually, would streamline the process and avoid inconsistencies.
2. Administrators should educate students about the process of filling out the FAFSA: School administrators would do well to make staff, students, and parents aware of the importance of recording facts about the school’s name and location accurately. They should also ask that students avoid completing a FAFSA for practice prior to their senior year. Filling out a FAFSA prior to senior year won’t give students better or earlier access to federal aid, but it will remove that student’s senior year submission from a school’s count.
3. Clean the data by hand: U.S. Department of Education officials say they already do this, but when I called last month, they hadn’t yet made it to Texas, where YES Prep is located. Realistically this job is too big to do more than once a year, so it would be helpful to know when the Department of Education finishes sifting through FAFSAs. That way analysts and counselors will know when they have the most complete, accurate information at their fingertips.
4. Start to use FAFSA completion rates in meaningful ways: Until school administrators and counselors begin using this data to calculate their own school’s FAFSA completion rate and make a serious attempt to grow that rate, there won’t be a real push to clean up the limitations in the data.
So there you have it, data lovers. The new FAFSA completion reports are incredibly valuable tools for school improvement. They let counselors watch their completion numbers grow, or not, in real time. They give those counselors the immediate feedback they need to help their students prepare for college. Just know they are not perfect yet—and proceed with caution.
Written by Education Sector Policy Intern Amanda Stafford.
Photo Credit: Strategies for College