Congress Finally Simplifies the FAFSA – Now It’s Time for States to Drive Completion

Friday, December 13, 2019
Lauren Norton
Senior Associate

In a time of immense disagreement on Capitol Hill, one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is the need to fix the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This week, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to simplify the FAFSA for the approximately 20 million families who complete it each year. In addition to reauthorizing $255 million in funding per year to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions, the FUTURE Act will eliminate up to 22 of the 108 questions on the form. The U.S. Department of Education estimates this will eliminate over $6 billion in mistakes for Pell grants and student loans and save taxpayers $2.8 billion per year.

The passage of the FUTURE Act is a momentous win for students and families. In addition to minimizing the burden of completing the complex form, the legislation will essentially put an end to the painfully bureaucratic verification process. Having been shown to disproportionately target low-income students, verification requires families to resubmit information entered on the FAFSA to colleges and universities to be eligible for financial aid.

While this action from the federal government is welcomed, it will not be sufficient to address the glaring gap in FAFSA completion rates seen nationwide. Each year, over a third of high school seniors fail to complete the FAFSA, leaving an estimated $3.4 billion in financial aid on the table (see our previous blog for a state-by-state analysis). And the students who stand to benefit most, including low-income and first-generation students, are the least likely to complete the form. According to new findings from the National College Access Network (NCAN), only five states have high poverty schools with FAFSA completion rates higher than those of low poverty schools. Many students and families cite a lack of awareness about what the FAFSA is, why it’s important, and how to complete the form as a key barrier, which simplifying the form alone will not solve.

State leaders should leverage the momentum created by the FUTURE Act to prioritize FAFSA completion in their states. As leading states have proven, significant progress on FAFSA completion is possible with the right combination of incentives and supports. In just a few short years, Tennessee and Louisiana both experienced over 20 percentage point gains in FAFSA completion, making them the top two states in the nation.

In January, Education Strategy Group will release a report, Fast Track FAFSA Completion, that outlines key strategies for states to dramatically increase the likelihood that students complete the FAFSA.

Informed by an analysis of policies from across the country, the report recommends that states:

  1. Set a FAFSA completion goal tied to existing initiatives and priorities to create momentum.
  2. Build shared ownership across K-12 and higher education.
  3. Create incentives for local and regional implementation of FAFSA completion strategies.
  4. Use data to target supports and transparently report progress.
  5. Establish partnerships to provide on-the-ground training and support.
  6. Spread awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion.

The FAFSA is key to opening doors to a postsecondary degree or credential, particularly for our most vulnerable students. With the passage of the FUTURE Act by the federal government, it’s now up to states to take the baton and drive FAFSA completion rates across the finish line.

Sign up for ESG’s newsletter if you would like to receive notification about the release of our new report.

Johnson City Press