Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Investigating Rates and Patterns of Financial Aid Renewal Among College Freshmen


College affordability continues to be a top concern among prospective students, their families, and policy makers. Prior work has demonstrated that a significant share of prospective students forgo financial aid because they did not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); recent federal policy efforts have focused on supporting students and their families to successfully file the FAFSA. Despite the fact that students must refile the FAFSA every year to maintain their aid eligibility, there are many fewer efforts to help college students renew their financial aid each year. While prior research has documented the positive effect of financial aid on persistence, we are not aware of previous studies that have documented the rate at which freshman year financial aid recipients successfully refile the FAFSA, particularly students who are in good academic standing and appear well-poised to succeed in college. The goal of our paper is to address this gap in the literature by documenting the rates and patterns of FAFSA renewal. Using the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, we find that roughly 16 % of freshmen Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing do not refile a FAFSA for their sophomore year. Even among Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing who return for sophomore year, nearly 10 % do not refile a FAFSA. Consequently, we estimate that these non-refilers are forfeiting $3,550 in federal student aid that they would have received upon successful FAFSA refiling. Failure to refile a FAFSA is strongly associated with students dropping out later in college and not earning a degree within six years. These results suggest that interventions designed to increase FAFSA refiling may be an effective way to improve college persistence for low-income students.

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  1. 1.

    Source: authors’ calculations using the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey of 2011-12. King (2004, 2006) and Kofoed (2015) estimate similar rates of non-filing for the Pell eligible undergraduate students.

  2. 2.

    For more information on these programs, see and

  3. 3.

    For more detail on how we obtained these estimates of forgone aid, see “Discussion” Section.

  4. 4.

    Students only realize their true cost of attendance at a specific college after applying for admission and submitting the FAFSA for that institution.

  5. 5.

    Source: authors’ calculations from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of 2012.

  6. 6.

    Researchers have also used such text-based nudges to improve other social outcomes, such as increasing flu-vaccination rates and workers’ contributions to retirement accounts (Karlan et al. 2010; Stockwell et al. 2012).

  7. 7.

    Other researchers advocate for a simpler financial aid application process, such as using a much smaller set of financial questions or using prior-prior year information to determine eligibility (Dynarski and Scott-Clayton 2008; Dynarski et al. 2013; Kelchen and Jones 2015).

  8. 8.

    However, filing a Renewal FAFSA still requires applicants to fill in responses to the questions regarding income and assets, which are the most onerous to complete.

  9. 9.

    The U.S. Department of Education sends reminder emails to refile the FAFSA to students who: (1) have previously received a federal PIN; (2) whose name, date of birth, and social security number match with Social Security Administration records; and (3) provided a valid email address on their previously file FAFSA. Source: (

  10. 10.

    Source: authors’ calculation from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of 2012.

  11. 11.

    In Fall 2003, the NSC enrollment data covered 86.5 percent of all postsecondary institutions. In Fall 2009, the coverage rate increased to 92 percent. Source:

  12. 12.

    Some students attended more than one institution during the 2003–2004 academic year, and some students switch institutions between their first and second year of college. Unless otherwise specified, we use the characteristics of the first institution a student attended during 2003–2004 in our analysis.

  13. 13.

    Using IPEDS, we calculate admissions rates by dividing total number of applicants by admitted students. These data are available for all institutions with no open admission policy.

  14. 14.

    The Federal Pell Grant Program awards needs-based grants to low-income students who attend participating postsecondary institutions. The award amount is determined by a student’s expected family contribution (EFC), which is calculated using the income and assets data from students FAFSA (source: In 2003–2004, students with EFCs less than or equal to $3,850; and Pell awards for full-time students ranged from $400 to $4,050.

  15. 15.

    We define “re-enroll” as enrolling at any postsecondary institution during the 2004–2005 academic year, not necessarily the institution that the student first attended in 2003–2004.

  16. 16.

    In accordance with IES reporting standards for restricted-use data, all sample sizes are rounded to the nearest ten.

  17. 17.

    Our results are robust to using probit or logistic regression models in place of the linear probability models.

  18. 18.

    For student who took the ACT, the BPS converts their ACT score to an SAT score for comparison; we use these converted ACT scores in our analysis. For students with no record of either entrance exam scores, we convert their missing value for SAT score to the sample mean, and include an indicator for missing entrance exam score in the regression.

  19. 19.

    While there is no deadline for filing the FAFSA and receiving a Pell grant, the majority of states and institutions have priority deadlines for their aid programs that are typically no later than April 1st, although some are as early as February 15th.

  20. 20.

    Our results are robust to several other specifications of Eq. 2, including logit, probit, and propensity score matching models.

  21. 21.

    We also estimate these models with cumulative GPA in 2006, certificate attainment by 2009, and on-time BA degree attainment (i.e. by June 2007). Across specifications, the associations between refiling and these outcomes are insignificant, and we omit these results from our tables.

  22. 22.

    For additional reference, Appendix Table 8 shows the refiling rates by institution-level.

  23. 23.

    Appendix Table 9 shows these means comparisons with the sample restricted to Pell recipients with good freshmen GPAs; the patterns we describe in this section are also consistent for that population.

  24. 24.

    For the subset of students who re-enroll, one question is whether failure to refile is associated with where students enroll for their sophomore year. However, we find that that refilers and non-refilers are similarly likely to remain at the same institution as they were enrolled for their first year (91 vs 90 %, respectively).

  25. 25.

    As expected, freshmen who fail to refile but remain enrolled are significantly less likely to file a FAFSA for the 2005–2006 academic year (17 vs 71 % of freshmen refilers).

  26. 26.

    To calculate these predicted probabilities, we set the rest of the control variables in the model at their means.

  27. 27.

    The 75th percentile corresponds to a Pell award that covers 32 % of a student’s cost of attendance.

  28. 28.

    Also significant in Table 4 are the coefficients for the missing variable indicator for cost of attendance (columns 1 and 2). This is likely due to the fact that cost of attendance variable is missing for those students who attend more than one institution during 2003–2004. This population of students represents a small percentage of our sample (5 %).

  29. 29.

    Appendix Table 10 shows the means of our analysis variables by institution level for freshmen Pell recipients. Compared to Pell recipients at 2-year and less-than 2-year institutions, Pell recipients at 4-year institutions are higher-achieving academically (as measured by their SAT scores), are less likely to be minority or first generation college students; are more likely to live on campus; are less likely to have dependent children; and are more likely to persist and graduate. Appendix Table 11 compares certain characteristics of institutions by level. Two-year and less-than two-year are much more likely to have open admission policies. Less-than two-year institutions are much more likely to have a continuous calendar system. Two-year and less-than two-year institutions share many of the same top degree or certificate programs; less-than two-year institutions also award degrees and certificates in vocational trades, such as “transportation and materials moving”, “construction trades”, and “precision production.”.

  30. 30.

    This pattern may be explained by grade inflation at less-than two-year institutions: 74 percent of students in our base Pell recipient sample who attended less-than two-year institutions earned a GPA or 3.0 or higher, compared to 50 % of students at four-year institutions and 55 % at two-year institutions. Similarly, an insufficient number of students at less-than two-year institutions earned a GPA below 1.0, thus necessitating the elimination of this category and making 1.00–1.99 the reference category for columns 3 and 6.

  31. 31.

    This statistic is based on the results from Table 6, which show that students at 2-year institutions are roughly 8 % points less likely to refile than students at four-year institutions.


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The authors are grateful for feedback from seminar participants at the University of Virginia and at the APPAM and ASHE conferences. This research was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305B090002 to the University of Virginia. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education. Any errors or omissions are our own.

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Correspondence to Kelli Bird or Benjamin L. Castleman.



See Tables 8, 9, 10, and 11.

Table 8 FAFSA refiling rates, by institution level
Table 9 Differences in student characteristics by refiling behavior, students with 3.0 + GPA
Table 10 Differences in student characteristics, by institution level
Table 11 Institution Characteristics, by level

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Bird, K., Castleman, B.L. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Investigating Rates and Patterns of Financial Aid Renewal Among College Freshmen. Res High Educ 57, 395–422 (2016).

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  • FAFSA completion
  • Financial aid
  • Low-income students
  • Persistence