Education leaders using demographic data, technology to increase FAFSA completion

States and other education stakeholders nationwide are mobilizing around evidence that low-income students who are most in need of financial aid have the lowest completion rate for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), Education Week reports. Students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to enroll in college and complete their degrees, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. FAFSA is the key that opens many doors to a more affordable college education: federal loans, grants, work-study arrangements, and even the preliminary step to qualify for aid from states and colleges.

But many students—especially those whose parents did not go to college and may be less likely to walk them through the process—are missing out on funds tied to FAFSA completion. According to Education Week, “in the high school graduating class of 2017, students left $2.3 billion in grants—money that doesn’t have to be repaid—on the table by failing to submit the FAFSA.”

States, communities taking targeted steps to boost FAFSA completion

Advocates for universal FAFSA completion are employing a variety of techniques to increase applications. These include demographic analyses, marketing campaigns, and networking efforts in neighborhoods and school districts with high populations of low-income families and potential first-generation college students.

In Columbus, Ohio, college access group I Know I Can increased its staff capacity and targeting to deploy postcards, radio announcements, yard signs, billboards, and flyers in low-income and immigrant communities. The organization also expanded its workshops to serve non-English speaking immigrant communities and to accommodate the schedules of working families. According to I Know I Can’s director of grants and data, Columbus’s FAFSA completion rate rose from 47 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2018.

In Louisiana, a policy switch from treating the FAFSA as an option to a high school graduation requirement—with an opt-out alternative for students who complete required paperwork—raised the form completion rate from 65 percent in 2017 to 81 percent in 2018. The state also has tapped retired school counselors to assist students with FAFSA completion and ranks all schools and districts by FAFSA completion rate.

Acknowledging progress, stakeholders push for further improvements

During the 2005-06 school year, around one-third of all high school students completed the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network. The figure has grown to nearly 61 percent, thanks to efforts among school districts, state officials, volunteers, and nonprofits. Inside Higher Ed reports that the Department of Education hopes the FAFSA process will become even more convenient with the October 1 roll-out of a mobile-friendly FAFSA app, myStudentAid, aimed at putting the FAFSA into the palm of every student’s hand.

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