How Pell Students Miss Out on State Aid

June 17, 2016

By Paula Acevedo, Graduate Policy Assistant 

About 46 percent of Pell Grant recipients file the FAFSA after their state aid deadline, according to a new Wisconsin Hope Lab report. These students “under-file,” meaning they still meet the federal aid deadline of June 30, but will no longer qualify for state dollars.

And those with the greatest need have a larger chance of missing out: The study found that among all Pell-eligible 2014-15 filers, in the 31 states that set cut-off dates for their aid, students with an Expected Family Contribution of zero were 9 percentage points more likely than their higher-income peers to under-file.

The research suggests these under-filers struggle as they’re forced to jump through many hoops at the federal, state and institutional levels to apply for aid. For one thing, under-filers feel the process is too long -- requiring, for instance, hard-to-find information like itemized estimates of family expenses.

Making the process more confusing for under-filers is the fact that state priority deadlines are typically much earlier than the federal deadline and are often not the same as institutional aid deadlines. In fact, 30 states have priority deadlines more than 400 days before the federal aid deadline of June 30. Illinois, the only state that announces when its funds are gone, ran out of money as early as Feb. 28 in the 2014-2015 academic year.

But states with later deadlines usually have lower rates of under-filing. For example, in New York, which corresponds its state aid deadline with the June 30 federal one, 0 percent of students under-file. Ohio students, who have the second-latest deadline, under-filed at an 11.1-percent rate. That’s significantly lower than Connecticut, where 76.1 percent of students under-filed under a Feb. 15 deadline, and Oklahoma, where 74.4 percent under-filed after March 1.

As states set new or earlier deadlines, the researchers say, more students will miss out on their aid, so states should be encouraged to set deadlines closer to the federal cut-off. Other research suggests the number of under-filers could also be reduced through better communication using behaviorally informed messages for both parents and students.

Most under-filers in the study belonged to underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities, were low-income or had no parent with a four-year college degree. They were also more likely to attend a community college than on-time filers, and were more likely to drop out or take longer to graduate. When breaking it down by institution type, the researchers found that six in 10 private four-year and two-year students under-filed, compared to 31 percent and 52 percent at public four-year and two-year schools, respectively.

The National College Access Network applauds the Wisconsin Hope Lab’s effort to address the problem of under-filing, but recommends that states only move their deadlines later if they can couple the change with need-based only grants or increased grant funding. Otherwise, moving the deadline back would create a de facto first-come, first-served atmosphere. It is in the states’ best interest to provide aid to the students who need it the most, to develop a skilled workforce.

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