Dive Brief:

  • Three states have enacted policies requiring high school seniors to fill out or formally decline a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and more than a dozen others are considering such a mandate.
  • That’s according to a new Century Foundation report that points out challenges with implementing the requirement, including that students may be unaware of other steps in the college admissions process. 
  • More FAFSA completions mean more students receiving Pell Grants, which would reduce costs for low-income students, the authors argue, though they note the idea “remains largely untested.”

Dive Insight:

While policies making FAFSA completion mandatory are a hot topic in college access, there is much to learn about how they play out, the authors explain.

They point to Louisiana, the only state to fully implement the requirement, as an example. One in three public high schools there had FAFSA completion rates of 65% or more before the policy was implemented, compared to four in five now. And the FAFSA completion difference between low- and high-income school districts closed by more than seven percentage points in a year as a result of the change.

Nationally, challenges remain. Those include requiring parents to sign off on the form, and related technological issues, as well as the selective vetting of applications requiring documentation that students might not have ready access to. Earlier FAFSA filing deadlines could give students more time to track down missing information, the authors note. 

Even before the pandemic, research showed that college students entering from high school were leaving billions of financial aid dollars on the table. Reasons for not applying for the money include thinking their family could afford college without the money, believing they didn’t qualify and not having enough information about how to complete a FAFSA. 

But the crisis has exacerbated the issue of students not applying for the aid, recent reports have found. Around 3% fewer students had renewed their FAFSA as of May compared to the year before, with the decrease concentrated among low-income students, according to the National College Attainment Network. Students were renewing at higher rates this year in only five states, two of which — Texas and Louisiana  have enacted policies that generally require graduating students to file a FAFSA.

Consultancy EAB highlighted a significant decrease in FAFSA filings this year among students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds who had already been accepted into and paid a deposit at their school of choice. 

The Century Foundation report’s authors encourage state leaders to support FAFSA completion among the coming year’s senior class. They also encourage colleges to “play an active role” helping students complete FAFSAs, such as by partnering with school districts to host information sessions at which students fill out the form.

Reminders from counselors to fill out financial aid forms have also been shown to help improve college enrollment. And federal legislation passed late last year aims to simplify the process of applying for federal student aid.

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