NCAN Challenges Cities to Raise FAFSA Completion Rates by 5%

March 7, 2016

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

Today, NCAN announces the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant to strengthen urban postsecondary ecosystems by raising FAFSA completion rates among high school seniors in cities across the country. 118 U.S. cities are invited to submit a proposal describing how they will meet NCAN’s challenge: To raise their FAFSA completion rates among the Class of 2017 by at least 5%, compared to the Class of 2015. Up to 20 cities will be selected to receive grants of up to $55,000.

Thanks to financial support from The Kresge Foundation, NCAN will make up to 20 grants of up to $55,000 each to be spent on planning and executing a citywide, cross-sector FAFSA completion effort for the 2016-17 school year.

 “When students complete a FAFSA, they are almost twice as likely to go on to college right after high school,” said Bill Moses, Kresge’s managing director for its Education program. “We also know cities that focus on FAFSA completion by working across the urban higher education ecosystem can see real traction in a short time. We hope this challenge pushes new cities to take on that collaborative, cross-sector work and make an immediate positive impact on high school graduates who go on to college.”

Millions of students who are eligible for aid fail to file the FAFSA each year, leaving billions of unclaimed dollars that could support their postsecondary education. A recent analysis by the financial media company NerdWallet found that of the U.S. high school graduating class of 2014, an average of 45% of students failed to complete the FAFSA. NerdWallet estimated that half of those FAFSA noncompleters would have been eligible for Pell Grants totaling an astounding $2.7 billion.

We know FAFSA completion is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment and good postsecondary student outcomes. In fact, 90% of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA attend college directly from high school, compared to just 55% of FAFSA noncompleters. Research also tells us that every additional $1,000 in grant aid per student increases postsecondary persistence rates by four percentage points.

Two significant changes to the FAFSA in the fall of 2016 will make applying for aid easier and better timed than ever for low-income students. First, FAFSA will change to accept tax data most families have already filed earlier in the year with the IRS, which can be used to pre-populate many FAFSA questions and reduce the difficulty of completing the application. Second, the start date for FAFSA completion will move up from January 1 to October 1. High school seniors will be able to complete FAFSA and receive their federal financial aid eligibility before, rather than after, deadlines to submit college admissions applications. This shift will encourage more low-income students to complete college applications because they will know that a Pell Grant is available to them. The Obama Administration estimates that in the first year alone, these changes could help 50,000 additional students apply for and receive Pell Grants.

“These changes should help empower students with information about the financial support that is available to them before they have to make decisions about where to enroll,” said Caroline Altman Smith, Kresge’s deputy director, education. “This challenge grant program comes at an opportune time, when getting the word out about these changes is crucial. We’ve been energized by seeing many promising examples of cities significantly boosting their FAFSA completion rates, and we’re hopeful this grant competition will help even more cities develop a coordinated plan to ensure students know about the FAFSA changes and take advantage of them.”

In addition to the 20 city grants, NCAN will also award three to five additional monetary prizes totaling $300,000 in September 2017 among the 20 grant-funded cities. Prizes will go to:

  • The city demonstrating greatest percentage growth in high school FAFSA completions for the Class of 2017, compared to the Class of 2015
  • The city demonstrating the highest high school FAFSA completion rate for the Class of 2017
  • The city demonstrating the most innovative or collaborative FAFSA completion strategy and/or partnership with postsecondary institutions

This year is a strategic moment to increase FAFSA completion initiatives, take advantage of these beneficial FAFSA changes, and dispel old beliefs that FAFSA is too complicated or that “I’m not eligible.” Cities are a natural place to concentrate FAFSA assistance to ensure we reach large numbers of students with support. Let’s work together to help our students access these unclaimed dollars and ultimately improve postsecondary student outcomes.

NCAN thanks The Kresge Foundation for FAFSA Completion Challenge grant funding. More information about the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant, including a list of eligible cities, is available at

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