Infographic: The Leaky FAFSA Pipeline

December 14, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation 

Late last month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hosted a hearing on proposals to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Five expert witnesses talked about the impact the FAFSA has on students’ postsecondary education prospects and financial aid experience (and NCAN submitted a written statement). For years NCAN has sought to raise awareness among policymakers and the public about how changes to the FAFSA could improve college access, especially for underserved low-income, first-generation students, many of them of color.

NCAN knows that entirely too many students eligible for federal financial aid fall out of the pipeline during the FAFSA process. To illustrate, we are releasing this infographic titled “The Leaky FAFSA Pipeline.” It shows that of an estimated 1.8 million low-income high school seniors, just 548,000 (31%) will arrive on-campus using the Pell Grant for which they are eligible.

(click here to enlarge infographic)  

The biggest leak in the pipeline comes at the FAFSA submission stage, where we estimate that more than 45 percent of students may not even submit an application. Using data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, we see that the top reasons for not submitting a FAFSA are that students:

  • did not know how or that they could;
  • are debt averse or think their credit is too low (note that their credit is not taken into account at all, a piece of misinformation that could be corrected with early awareness);
  • are not pursuing college; and/or
  • think the form is too complicated.

Another major leak comes much further along in the process. Of the estimated 817,000 seniors who will complete a FAFSA, half will be selected for verification. In a blog post earlier this year, NCAN described what we dubbed “verification melt,” or a failure to complete the verification process that derails a student’s receipt of a Pell Grant. Although 78 percent of students not selected for verification go on to receive a Pell Grant, just 56 percent of students selected for verification do so. The 22-percentage-point disparity here, absent any evidence that students selected or not selected for verification are meaningfully and systematically different, is attributable to the verification process itself.

Summer melt is also a major leak in the FAFSA pipeline and claims 25 percent of students who do complete a FAFSA.

All of these leaks could benefit from policy and practice solutions. FAFSA submissions could be increased if more students had early awareness of the financial aid available to them and had a more streamlined FAFSA process overall. Reforms to the verification process, which one witness testifying at the HELP Committee’s hearing noted takes up 25 percent of her financial aid professionals’ time, could both free up resources to help students on college campuses and decrease the verification melt phenomenon. Behavioral interventions like text message nudging have been shown to increase postsecondary enrollments, but these interventions, unfortunately, are not widespread or accessible to enough students who could benefit.

Simplifying the FAFSA has been a topic of Congressional discussion for years, and NCAN applauds the bipartisan hearing that called attention to various approaches for moving forward with this policy aim. Our Leaky FAFSA Pipeline infographic serves as a reminder of the consequences the current system has for students. It can be improved at various points, and we hope that policymakers, working with practitioners and researchers, will do so.

For those interested in FAFSA verification and stories of its impact, The Chronicle of Higher Education published recent reporting by Eric Hoover that is required reading.

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