Closing Gaps in Access to Financial Aid
The students who could benefit the most from federal financial aid are actually often less likely to apply for it, according to a National College Attainment Network (NCAN) report. This gap impairs advocates’ efforts to improve equity in higher education because affordability significantly affects the ability of many students to enroll and remain in college.
What if there were demonstrably effective ways to lower barriers to financial aid applications so more students, at all income levels and from all backgrounds, apply to college?
Many states, cities, and school districts are taking actions that boost student completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), particularly among groups that have historically lagged in applying. Completing the FAFSA is the mandatory first step in qualifying for all forms of federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans. Many states and colleges also use FAFSA information to award their own grants, scholarships, and loans.
Most efforts to boost FASFA completions experience some degree of success, and some result in dramatic gains. But nationwide replication of these efforts is key.
To illustrate this point: In 2022, just two states —Alabama and Texas — accounted for about 60% of the nationwide gain in FAFSA completions by high school seniors through policy changes to make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement.
“FAFSA completion often needs individual support. We need many more hands to help every student complete.” said Kim Cook, a former Pell Grant recipient who is now NCAN’s CEO. NCAN is a nonprofit member association dedicated to closing equity gaps in postsecondary attainment for all students, and it has made FAFSA completions a centerpiece of its efforts.
The nationwide FAFSA completion rate for high school seniors was better in 2022 (57.7%) than in 2021 (53.1%), especially at high schools with a high proportion of Black and Hispanic students or a high proportion of students from low-income households. But the completion rate remained below 58% as of September 2022, according to NCAN’s FAFSA tracker.
The FAFSA – college enrollment connection
A nationally representative survey from the National Center for Education Statistics showed a strong association between FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment in the fall following high school graduation. This association was particularly strong for students of low socioeconomic status. In fact, according to the study, FAFSA completion was associated with a 34-percentage-point decrease in the socioeconomic status-based gap in postsecondary enrollment in 2013.
This study could not prove direct causation — that will require additional research. But in a 2022 survey on the State of Higher Education, more than half of all unenrolled adults cited the cost of a college degree as a very important reason they stopped out or never enrolled. NCAN has also determined that more FAFSA completions could unlock billions of dollars in unused aid.
“The high school class of 2021 left an estimated $3.75 billion in Pell Grants on the table by not completing the FAFSA.”
— NCAN analysis
“Eligible students don’t apply because they don’t understand that the financial aid programs exist or because they can’t believe that the federal government will help them go to college or… because the form is complicated,” Cook said. NCAN also found that debt aversion is a factor for many students.
“Many factors contribute to that astonishing $3.75 billion in Pell Grants left on the table by eligible students who don’t complete the FAFSA.”
A big effort to address the FAFSA form’s complexity is finally coming to fruition after years of advocacy from organizations like NCAN. Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act in 2020. This law will streamline the FAFSA form and expand access to federal aid. The act’s changes will be phased in from the 2021–2022 to the 2024–2025 financial aid award years.
Simplification isn’t a cure-all for the FAFSA completion problem. However, by addressing one substantial barrier, it should make other efforts to boost FAFSA completions more effective. These efforts by states and school districts include:
- Universal FAFSA completion policies. States mandate FAFSA completion by high school seniors (with exceptions) as a condition of high school graduation.
- Peer coaches. School districts recruit key seniors — or “near peers” who have started college — to provide encouragement or assistance. In some successful efforts, as in Arizona’s Mesa school district, peers are offered financial incentives or other rewards.
- One-on-one assistance. School staff provide individual attention to students. One-on-one assistance builds trust between students and staff and allows time to answer specific questions. Some programs also include family outreach (since parents may be reluctant to disclose the financial information the application requires).
- FAFSA completion events. Schools host events focused on completing FAFSA forms. School-based events are promotable, provide on-the-spot support, and build on the camaraderie of peers doing the same thing at the same time.
- Social media and texting. Schools have adopted a variety of approaches. For example, Fort Worth Independent School District posts weekly on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to promote completion events; offers monthly awards for schools; holds award drawings for FAFSA completers; and posts “myth-busters” for parents.
- FAFSA chatbots. Technology, and specifically artificial intelligence, can be a useful tool for increasing FAFSA completion. Federal Student Aid has Aidan, Arizona has Benji, and Washington has the OtterBot. All of these platforms help connect students with answers to their questions. Even better, the services can learn new content based on students’ most frequent queries.
These tactics typically are used in combination. For example, districts and schools can use social media to drive up attendance at FAFSA completion events, as Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada did with this Dancing Dollars YouTube video. States can combine FAFSA mandates with other support. For example, Louisiana, a pioneer in making FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement, also provided students and parents with support to complete the form and launched a text messaging and social media campaign to educate them on its value.
Making FAFSA Completion Mandatory
The most effective means of increasing FAFSA completion among all groups is to adopt what NCAN calls “universal FAFSA completion with supports.” Since 2018, five states (Louisiana, Illinois, Alabama, Texas, and California) have made FAFSA completion a requirement for graduation for high school seniors.
New Hampshire also approved a universal completion policy, which is scheduled to take effect during the 2023–2024 academic year. According to NCAN, about a dozen other states have considered implementing this policy through either legislation or regulation.
NCAN recommends that states do the following when implementing a mandate:
- Include a robust opt-out system for students who are unable to access parental financial information, who have undocumented parents, or whose parents allow them to abstain.
- Have the requirement take effect at least one full FAFSA cycle after approval of the legislation or regulation to give states and school districts time to prepare.
- Provide robust training and support through school counselors or college access advisers to ensure that students are helped through the process.
- Share data on completion with high schools and community-based organizations to enable better-targeted FAFSA completion efforts.
Every state that has implemented a mandate so far allows opt-outs, although the criteria may differ from or expand on NCAN’s recommendations. For example, some states allow students to submit applications for state aid instead of the FAFSA to meet the requirement.
Even with the opt-outs, the rise in FAFSA completions in most of the states that have implemented a mandate has been dramatic, particularly among the student groups that were least likely to complete the application.
Impacts of Universal Completion Policy
Data from National College Attainment Network’s Digging Deeper into Universal FAFSA Impacts in Four States unless otherwise indicated.
Louisiana, policy first implemented for the 2017–2018 school year
- The FAFSA completion rate increased from 58.8% for the 2017 class to 69.9% for the 2018 class.
- Louisiana ranked first of all states in FAFSA completion rate in 2018, 2019, and 2021 (LOSFA and LA Department of Education).
- In 2021, the state achieved equal FAFSA completion rates (78%) for students who were economically disadvantaged and those who were not economically disadvantaged (Louisiana Financial Aid Working Group).
Alabama, policy first implemented for the 2021–2022 academic year
- The FAFSA Completion rate increased from 46.7% for the 2021 class to 58.9% for the 2022 class.
- Public high schools with a high proportion of students from low-income households saw the number of FAFSA completions rise 25.8% in 2021, compared with a 19.7% increase for other high schools.
- High schools with a high proportion of students from ethnic and racial minority groups (40% or more of students Black or Hispanic) saw a 28.1% increase in the FASFA completion rate, compared with a 19.5% increase for high schools with lower proportions of students in these groups.
Illinois, policy first implemented for the 2020–2021 academic year
- Completion rate increased from 62.2% in 2020 to 65.7% in 2021.
- Illinois rose from 10th to 4th in the state completion-rate ranking.
Texas, policy first implemented for the 2021–2022 school year
- Completion rate increased from 50.1% in 2021 to 62.6% in 2022.
- The number of FAFSA completions in Texas increased by more than 27%, greatly surpassing the average increase of 4.1% nationwide.
The short time frame and small number of states in which these universal completion policies have been in effect mean that evidence about the policies’ effects on enrollment, persistence, and college completion is still developing. Follow-up research is needed to shed light on the policies’ impact.
FAFSA Completion Resources
For states, cities, school districts, high schools, colleges, and universities seeking to begin or bolster FAFSA completion efforts, NCAN’s Form Your Future website and the FAFSA resource library are good places to start.
Form Your Future includes social media posts to share, a collection of personal stories, successful institutional tactics and strategies, and a downloadable guide. You also can explore data on how your state, city, school district, or school is faring on FAFSA completions.
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