Kickstart your FAFSA Campaign

Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Steve Desir

October 1 means the start of a new cycle for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In my previous work at a local education agency and in higher education institutions, I had the opportunity to counsel families and advise students about the importance of completing the FAFSA. In this work, I found that far too often there were significant misunderstandings about the financial aid process that stood in the way of students and families taking advantage of the aid that was available to them.

In the 2018-19 school year, only 57% of high school seniors nationally completed the FAFSA, with state rates varying from the mid 30s to high 70s (see map below for state rates). Each year the FAFSA serves as a hurdle that approximately 1.6 million students do not overcome. This amounts to over $3.4 billion dollars of federal financial aid left on the table.

New research indicates that 1 in 4 students who did not complete a FAFSA attributed that failure to a lack of information about how to complete the form. As states work to close higher education attainment gaps, providing support and guidance for navigating the completion of the FAFSA will be critical for accelerating the numbers of students that seamlessly transition into higher education. This support and guidance will be especially important for students of color and those who come from low-income or rural communities.

There are many promising FAFSA initiatives taking place across the country, and leaders are taking notice and setting their sights on the next phase of this work. Recently Texas and Illinois passed legislation that would require students to submit an application for federal student aid as a high school graduation requirement. These states join Louisiana which passed a similar regulation last year. All of the new policies provide an opportunity for students to opt-out of submitting the FAFSA. In the first year of implementation, Louisiana saw significant success with FAFSA submission rates increasing by approximately 25 percentage points in the first year. This increase amounts to approximately $17.8 million dollars of new federal student aid funding in the state.

You might be wondering why states are setting their sights on FAFSA completion.  Research has shown that 90% of students who complete the FAFSA in high school seamlessly enroll in college, compared to only 55% of students that do not fill out the form. Each $1,000 of aid funding provided to students leads to a 4 percentage point increase in the probability that they will enroll in college.  As states develop plans for achieving their attainment goals, improving FAFSA completion rates is a barrier that we can all work collectively to break down.

While legislation requiring the submission of the FAFSA is helpful, it is certainly not sufficient. Many leading states, including Louisiana, and local communities have devoted resources to ensure that students and families have the support necessary to navigate the financial aid application process. A few ideas for state and community leaders to consider include the following:

  • Develop a Communications Campaign that educates students and families – TN Achieves hosts FAFSA days to provide support and assistance to students and their families.
  • Provide counseling and assistance to support students and families – The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance coordinates a peer support program where college students provide assistance to high school seniors.
  • Develop formal partnerships with local college access organizations – The Florida Department of Education serves on the advisory council for the Florida College Access Network to help coordinate the work across sectors.
  • Share data with high schools about which students completed the FAFSA – Colorado and California have both developed tools for sharing data with high school counselors about which students have completed the FAFSA.

ESG is looking forward to working with state and local leaders in their efforts to improve FAFSA completion rates. To help publicize the gaps in FAFSA completion, ESG has created an infographic and calculated the amount of unclaimed federal financial aid dollars as a result of students not completing the FAFSA for each state. (You can find the amount of unclaimed federal financial aid dollars in each state by hovering over the states in the map below.) To access a state-specific infographic, please contact Steve Desir.

In the coming months, ESG will be sharing case studies of successful FAFSA campaigns in communities throughout the county. Students who overcome this hurdle are more likely to seamlessly transition into higher education and we must do our best to ensure that we help as many students as possible realize that the doors of higher education are open and accessible to them.

Click Here to Download ESG’s FAFSA Infographic