FAFSA Non-Filers: What the Research Says

June 13, 2016

By Paula Acevedo, Graduate Policy Assistant 

 

Every year, at least 2 million students don’t complete the FAFSA, and even more complete it too late to qualify for or renew their aid. But why?

The information asymmetry between the financial aid process and the students it’s intended to serve results in millions of potential applicants being unaware of the aid they may be eligible for. These students don’t know the FAFSA is the first step in getting financial assistance, and they have inaccurate perceptions of who applies for and receives aid. Students have to learn how to navigate a process with limited guidance from counselors and parents, requiring them to answer many questions they don’t have the answers to, while assuming their parents will be able to help.

But a wealth of research can help schools and colleges change those patterns.

Research on behaviorally informed messaging suggests it could help students and their parents understand the process and meet its deadlines. In an Ideas42 experiment, families who received such messages increased their FAFSA completions by 50 percent. The increase was smaller but still significant when researchers sent messages to just parents or just students -- 44 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

The typical FAFSA non-completers include students with vastly different incomes, research indicates. There’s the independent students earning more than $50,000, and the dependent students whose parents make more than $80,000. Then there’s independent students earning $10,000 or less, and dependent students whose parents earn less than $20,000. The majority of the latter are low-income or first-generation, and would have qualified for a Pell Grant and other forms of aid.

And surveys from 1992 through 2008 show a significant shift in the reasons students don’t file the FAFSA. Whereas non-filers used to cite their parents’ ability to pay, more recently, students have said they didn’t think they qualified for the aid. Despite standing to benefit the most, a full 44 percent of non-filers were first-year community college students, compared with 26 percent of students at four-year public colleges and 18 percent of those at private colleges. Community college students were also more likely to file late (54 percent did so) than four-year students were ( just under a quarter of those at public colleges and 17 percent at privates were tardy).

Other research shows that many students who don’t file the FAFSA because they don’t want to accumulate debt fund their education instead using the “pay as you go” method. They enroll part-time and then work to cover their educational expenses. But research has shown that students who work extra hours and could have benefited from aid are less likely to persist in college.

By simply not filing the FAFSA, millions of students remain in the dark about what aid they qualify. Schools should ensure their students know that even if they are awarded loans they don’t have to take them, and grants and scholarships may be a better option.





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