NCAN Challenges Cities to Raise FAFSA Completion Rates by 5 Percentage Points

March 14, 2018

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

Update: On April 17, NCAN extended the deadline for proposals to May 11. 

Today, NCAN announces the 2018-19 FAFSA Completion Challenge grant competition to raise FAFSA completion rates among high school seniors in cities across the country. One hundred 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 2019 by at least 5 percentage points, compared to the Class of 2017. Up to 30 cities will be selected to receive grants of up to $40,000, generously funded by Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates and The Kresge Foundation. Also, NCAN will award a $100,000 grand prize in September 2019 to one city based on a holistic review of the percentage growth in completions, adoption of effective strategies, barriers overcome, and likelihood of sustainability.

The 2018-19 competition builds on the success of the initial 2016-17 FAFSA Completion Challenge, funded by The Kresge Foundation. For the graduating high school class of 2017, 22 competing cities increased FAFSA completion by an average of 10 percent. Eighteen of the 22 improved from the baseline year, and the cities logged an average increase of 4.45 percentage points. Greensboro, NC, came out on top with the highest completion rate (66.03 percent) and the biggest increase (13.76 percentage points). The average national completion rate for the Class of 2017 was 61 percent. 

“The 2016-17 Challenge demonstrated that cities could achieve significant progress in just one school year by working collaboratively across sectors to give students the FAFSA completion support they need,” said Bill Moses, Kresge’s managing director for its Education program. “This is a high-leverage investment for funders because when students complete a FAFSA, they are almost twice as likely to go on to college right after high school.”

“Great Lakes is pleased to join our Kresge Foundation colleagues in supporting the FAFSA Completion Challenge because of the opportunity to spread evidence-based strategies for FAFSA completion to more communities,” Amy Kerwin, Great Lakes vice president for community investments, said. “Successful cities are learning to use data to target the right support to the right students at the right time. We want to help even more school districts understand how to help all their seniors complete this vital step to entering postsecondary education.”

Millions of students who are eligible for aid fail to file the FAFSA each year, leaving “money on the table” that could be supporting their postsecondary education. For example, an analysis published in October 2017 by the financial media company NerdWallet found that of the U.S. high school graduating Class of 2017, an average of 36 percent of students failed to complete the FAFSA. NerdWallet estimated that half of those non-completers would have been eligible for Pell Grants totaling $2.3 billion.

FAFSA non-completion rates present an enormous opportunity because FAFSA completion is so strongly correlated with good postsecondary student outcomes. Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete FAFSA attend college directly after high school, compared to just 55 percent of FAFSA non-completers, and 52 percent of FAFSA filers complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrollment, compared to just 44 percent of non-filers.

The 100 invited cities for 2018-19 have populations of at least 100,000 residents and FAFSA completion rates that are at least 5 percentage points below the national average for the high school Class of 2017. More information about the FAFSA Completion Challenge Grant, including a list of eligible cities, is available at The deadline for grant proposals is April 13.

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