$2.6B in federal aid unclaimed last year because of barriers to FAFSA completion

As elite colleges strive to enroll and graduate more low-income students, adult learners, first-generation students, and students of color, school administrators are working to promote Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion. According to a report by NerdWallet, one-third of high school seniors in 2018 did not complete a FAFSA; Pell Grant-eligible students left $2.6 billion in free aid unclaimed by choosing not to apply. These students often see college as prohibitively expensive, not realizing how much aid they’re likely to receive, or find the FAFSA requirements too difficult to complete, Education Dive reports.

Ongoing barriers to completing the FAFSA

Students reluctant to complete the FAFSA also may have concerns about exposing their immigration status, criminal records, or limited English skills. Overtaxed guidance counselors may have limited capacity to walk students through the process. Even after entering college, many students find the financial aid re-application process intimidating, leading to lapses in aid renewal and overlooked opportunities to secure additional sources of aid.

“It’s almost as big a problem with our enrolled students,” said Soumitra Ghosh, assistant vice president of student recruitment at Rowan University. “They’re busy and it’s a lot of government forms. Who wants to do that?”

Colleges partnering with communities to grow awareness

To reduce the share of students foregoing available financial aid, James Applegate—a visiting professor at the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University—recommends that colleges work together with regional college-access groups to provide and publicize financial education sessions at area high schools for prospective college students and their parents.

“Many times there are a surprising number of individuals and groups working on college access in a region without really collaborating,” Applegate said. “Colleges can step in to coordinate those efforts and tap into that energy.”

The University of Dayton also works directly with individual high school students to ballpark their cost of attendance, discuss aid options, and share resources for obtaining precise cost estimates.

Ensuring continuous aid

The efforts continue well beyond students’ enrollment, too. Rowan University encourages low-income and first-generation students to stay on top of the application process year-to-year by emailing them reminders, posting deadlines on billboards around campus, and running a contest with prizes for students who turn in their forms. “[I]t is critical…that we help them understand this information and the fact that college is often affordable to them,” says Ghosh.

Foregoing the form entirely

Some institutions, meanwhile, are looking to boost application rates among high-achieving, lower-income students by removing FAFSA from the equation and directly promising reduced tuition. To publicize its tuition-free, financial aid form-free High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) scholarship, the University of Michigan sent eye-catching and inviting packets to low-income prospective students. Students who received these personally addressed packets were more than twice as likely to apply, gain admission, and enroll, than students who received only a postcard with application deadlines.

Related: How a low-cost mailer helped prevent undermatching >

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