Lessons from Four States on Equitable FAFSA Completion

August 29, 2017

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern 

Many students — especially low-income ones — do not complete the FAFSA because they are misinformed or completely uninformed about federal student aid. And while high school FAFSA completion has increased after a four-year decline, millions of students still are not completing the form: As of June 30, 2017, only 61 percent of high school seniors completed the FAFSA by graduation.

To help ensure more underserved students obtain the financial aid they need to attend college, we looked to four states — California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada — to identify best practices for increasing FAFSA completion among low-income students.

Why these four states? Earlier this year, NCAN published research demonstrating that, on average, there is a negative relationship between high school FAFSA completion rates and school district poverty. According to the research, California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada are the only states where high school FAFSA completion is both higher than the national completion rate, and higher in low-income districts than in higher-income  ones. 

Our new qualitative study, Increasing FAFSA Completion Among Low-Income Students: Lessons From Four States That Are Doing It Well, analyzes FAFSA completion initiatives within these states. We interviewed leaders of the higher education community and analyzed each of their organizations’ online resources to understand how the states promote equitable FAFSA completion. Eleven common themes emerged:

  1. FAFSA completion is important, especially for low-income students.
  2. Organizations are targeting low-income students for FAFSA completion, but they are unsure about their target FAFSA completion rates.
  3. FAFSA completion is a community-wide effort, meaning that it is everybody’s responsibility to increase it. 
  4. Partnerships are a key to success.
  5. Capacity is an issue for organizations and agencies, but funding and partnerships can help. 
  6. FAFSA completion events are essential pieces of FAFSA completion initiatives, and so is tailoring outreach and support to meet the needs of the population.
  7. Accessible and clear resources for students and parents are essential in FAFSA completion efforts. 
  8. Investment in college access professionals trickles down to students.
  9. Collecting data on FAFSA completion helps keep organizations accountable, and sharing student-level completion data helps increase FAFSA completion.
  10. Statewide or regional agencies are important stakeholders in raising FAFSA completion. 
  11. Early FAFSA was beneficial for students, yet the time crunch was a challenging adjustment for college access professionals. 

Based on these findings, we have nine recommendations for increasing FAFSA completion rates among low-income students. We encourage members of the higher education community to consider these findings to improve their own organization’s FAFSA completion efforts and to inform organizational policies aimed at increasing FAFSA completion rates.

Recommendation 1: Make low-income students the center of initiatives. If we are to raise FAFSA completion among low-income students, low-income students must be the target of FAFSA completion initiatives. Organizations and agencies should design initiatives with underrepresented populations, such as low-income and first-generation students, at the center. Organizations should also set realistic target FAFSA completion rates. This aids in keeping stakeholders accountable and evaluating initiatives each year to determine what works well and what does not. 

Recommendation 2: Foster as many partnerships as possible. Including many stakeholders in FAFSA completion efforts can help increase efficiency and accountability. NCAN supports the community-wide approach to increasing FAFSA completion and recommends that multiple organizations across a state, its districts and regions work together to raise FAFSA completion rates. We also recommend fostering multiple partnerships across regions and states in both the public and private sector.

Recommendation 3: Invest in college access professionals. Provide multiple trainings for college access professionals. It is important that those working closest with students understand the FAFSA and how to assist all students in completing it. Bringing counselors and college access professionals together creates an opportunity for them to collaborate and share their experiences, which will both help them develop professionally and help foster a sense of community.

Recommendation 4: Collect data on FAFSA completion to raise accountability for initiatives. Collecting data is important to understand how initiatives are doing and where there are areas for improvement. It is best if FAFSA completion data is shared publicly. This way, districts and regions that perform well can be recognized for their great work, and areas where FAFSA completion remains low can be encouraged.

Recommendation 5: Design FAFSA completion initiatives according to the target population’s needs. Students’ needs vary widely across regions and even school districts. It is important to understand the needs of students being served by an organization, and how the organization can serve them. If, for example, there is a large population of Spanish-speaking students, then resources should be available in Spanish.

Recommendation 6: Be consistent about FAFSA completion outreach and messaging. The biggest reason why students do not complete the FAFSA is because they are uninformed or misinformed about financial aid and the FAFSA. Having consistent outreach and messaging helps raise FAFSA awareness.

Recommendation 7: Start raising awareness about the FAFSA early. Some participants in the study stressed how it is important to start messaging about financial aid as early as possible. This way, by the time students enter their senior year of high school, they know that they need to complete the FAFSA to apply for financial aid. Early awareness increases efficiency because high school counselors, state or regional agencies, and other college access professionals do not have to start from square one with their outreach and awareness efforts.

Recommendation 8: Provide sufficient and easily accessible resources on organization websites. Because students are often misinformed or completely uninformed regarding financial aid and because most students begin their search for college and financial aid online, it is important to have sufficient and easily accessible resources for students on organization websites.

Recommendation 9: Ensure the state education agency is invested in FAFSA completion. State agencies provide resources to the college access community and to students throughout the state. Their geographic reach makes them key stakeholders for raising awareness about student financial aid for connecting members of the higher education community with each other and with other resources. State agencies are also important stakeholders in FAFSA completion accountability because they can advocate for and implement the FAFSA Completion Initiative — an Obama Administration initiative that gives states the right to share student-specific FAFSA completion information with school districts, TRIO/GEAR UP programs, and qualifying nonprofit college access programs.

To download the full report, click here.

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