Many Students Don’t Fill Out the FAFSA. Here’s One Practice That Could Help

Getting students to complete the FAFSA—the application for federal financial aid for college—is a perennial struggle for schools. New data suggests one factor that may make a big difference: meeting with a school counselor.

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step in qualifying for a host of federal grants, loans, and work-study arrangements, and most colleges require it for their own financial aid programs. Still, only about half of all graduating seniors complete it.

But the National Center for Education Statistics found in a recent analysis that students who met with their high school counselor about financial aid were more likely to have filled out the form than students who didn’t have those meetings. The difference was especially pronounced for students whose parents had a high school diploma or less, compared to students whose parents had a higher degree.

School counselors are often the main source of help for students when it comes to the nitty-gritty of FAFSA requirements and deadlines, said Geoff Heckman, a counselor at Platte County High School in Platte City, Mo., and the chair of the American School Counselor Association Board of Directors.

They answer students’ questions such as: What kind of tax records do I need? Do I still have to enter information for both parents if I only live with one? “They’re not sure what exactly all of the qualifiers are and how it impacts them,” Heckman said.

The NCES findings are especially relevant as schools continue to rebound from pandemic-related closures.

FAFSA completion took a hit during the first years of the pandemic, according to the nonprofit National College Attainment Network, which tracks student aid.

About 54 percent of the class of 2019 filled out the FAFSA by June of their senior year in high school. Only 50 percent of the class of 2021 did the same. Still, data from the Network show that completion rates started to climb back up again last school year. And students in poverty and students of color made the biggest gains.

Why students don’t apply, and what states have done to encourage them

NCES, a wing of the U.S. Department of Education, examined data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009—a national study tracking more than 23,000 students in 9th grade in 2009.

Among students who planned to go to college as of their 11th grade year, 87 percent who met with a school counselor about financial aid completed a FAFSA, compared to 59 percent of students who didn’t have those meetings—a gap of 28 percentage points. This gap in completion rates was higher—35 percentage points—for students whose parents had a high school diploma or less.

But having these meetings didn’t just correlate with applying for aid; they also were related to receiving it.

When these students attended college, 67 percent of those who met with a high school counselor received need-based grants, compared to 45 percent of college students who did not meet with a high school counselor.

Historically, the students who most need federal aid the most are also the least likely to apply for it. Completion rates for students from low-income families have long lagged behind those of their peers.

There are a host of reasons why students don’t complete the FAFSA. A 2018 survey from NCES outlined some of them—many students thought they wouldn’t need the money to afford college, or that they wouldn’t qualify. But 23 percent said they didn’t have enough information to fill out the form, and 15 percent said they didn’t know it was an option at all. Black and Hispanic students were more likely than white students to say that their families didn’t have the information they needed.

The U.S. Department of Education, under both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, has sought to address that problem by advertising the FAFSA and making it easier to fill out.

And some states have started their own initiatives. Since the 2017-18 school year, all graduating seniors in Louisiana have been required to fill out the FAFSA or file for aid through the state’s own program. The first year the policy was in place, completion rates jumped from 65 percent to 81 percent.

Four other states—Texas, Illinois, Alabama, and New Hampshire—have similar requirements for graduation. California, Colorado, and Maryland encourage or incentivize districts to ensure that students complete the aid application.

Still, even with these mandates, there’s the logistical issue of getting every student the support they need to fill out the form. In the 2020-21 school year, only 14 percent of school districts met the ratio of one school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association, according to an Educaiton Week analysis.

And while state requirements can help raise completion rates, states should take care to design them so that they don’t present unintended consequences, Heckman said.

Some parents may not feel comfortable sharing financial information that the FAFSA requires, which could potentially create an obstacle to graduation, he said. There are workarounds to the problem, though, he said—such as allowing students to opt out (which Louisiana does).

Ultimately, more encouragement to file the FAFSA is a good thing, he said. “We want every student to complete it.”

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