Are the Right Students Applying for Federal College Aid?
States and school districts have been pushing hard to get all students to apply for financial aid. But more and more, they’re zeroing in on low-income families to address a key irony of the college affordability problem: The students who most need help paying for college are the least likely to seek it.
With billboards, yard signs, demographic analysis, and lots of networking, district and school officials are trying to reach into neighborhoods with big populations of low-income families and parents who never went to college. The message: It’s important to fill out the federal financial-aid form—known as the FAFSA—and we can help you do it.
“In a time when we have so many conversations about college affordability, students who don’t complete the FAFSA are leaving money on the table,” said Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Access Network, which studies FAFSA trends as part of its work to increase college-going rates.
The increasing focus on low-income students marks a refinement in a years-long national campaign for universal completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The FAFSA lets students tap into a multibillion-dollar pool of federal loans, grants, and work-study arrangements. It’s also typically the first step in qualifying for aid from states and colleges. As such, it plays a key role in opening college doors to millions who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
A Tough Process Made Easier
In several rounds during the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has made the FAFSA shorter and easier to submit. Under the Obama administration, the department launched a major publicity campaign for FAFSA completion. The office of federal student aid now releases weekly updates on the rates of FAFSA completion in states, districts, and schools, allowing educators to track their progress.
The campaign has paid off. In 2005-06, about one-third of high school students completed the FAFSA. Now, nearly 61 percent do, according to NCAN.
But millions of students who qualify still don’t apply. NerdWallet calculated that 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.
Overlooking the FAFSA proves to be a huge barrier to college. Studies show that not submitting the FAFSA dramatically reduces young people’s postsecondary prospects.
In the high school class of 2013, 92 percent of seniors who completed FAFSAs enrolled in college the following fall, compared with only 52 percent of those who didn’t, according to the most recent federal statistics. Students who filed FAFSAs are more likely to stay in college, too, than those who don’t.
The problem is particularly acute in poor neighborhoods. A 2017 study by NCAN found that students in high-poverty school districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than their peers in wealthier districts.
With a rising awareness that low-income students are too often missing out on college aid, states and communities have retooled their outreach to target those families.
In Columbus, Ohio, a college-access group called I Know I Can quadrupled its staff of advisers, placing one adviser full-time in each of the city’s 20 high schools. The advisers identify a pool of students who could succeed in college, but might not apply, said Amy Wade, I Know I Can’s director of grants and data.
The advisers work closely with those students on all aspects of college planning, including FAFSA completion. Nearly all are low-income, Wade said, since 9 in 10 Columbus students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The targeting process has enabled a tighter focus where it’s needed most, Wade said.
“Before, we might have had advisers meeting 47 times with a student who was going to college anyway,” she said. “This way, we know strategically where to spend our time.”
Reaching Into Neighborhoods
Using money it won in an NCAN FAFSA-completion challenge, Columbus expanded its marketing to reach immigrant and low-income families. Flyers, postcards, radio announcements, and yard signs urged students to “Get cash for college now,” and offered help with FAFSA completion. It put up billboard signs in places where low-income families would be most likely to see them.
The nonprofit made a particular push to post flyers at community service organizations that serve the city’s large Somali and Nepali and Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, in their native languages, Wade said. Those groups also helped with language translation at school and community-based FAFSA-completion nights.
I Know I Can also expanded its FAFSA-completion workshops, making sure to offer time slots on weekdays, evenings, and weekends to accommodate a variety of parent work schedules, Wade said. Providing staff members and volunteers who are trained to help at those workshops was key, she said.
The work has paid off. Columbus raised its FAFSA-completion rate from 47 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2018, Wade said.
Detroit used some of the same techniques in its bid to boost FAFSA-completion rates, and the city has made a big impact. The district’s 54 percent FAFSA-completion rate in 2012 rose to 70 percent in 2013, and since then, has hovered in the 60s, said Ashley Johnson, the executive director of the Detroit College Access Network.
The organization focused its efforts on schools where 80 percent or more of the students qualified for subsidized meals, and excluded its three magnet schools, even though they, too, had substantial rates of poverty, Johnson said.
“The magnet schools already had a strong college-going culture, and higher FAFSA-completion rates,” Johnson said. “We knew that wasn’t where we needed to deploy our resources.”
DCAN worked with the school district, foundations, and community organizations to assemble an “action team” that analyzed FAFSA-completion data and set school- and districtwide goals, Johnson said.
The next step was to train school counselors and teams of volunteers in all its target high schools—150 to 200 people in all, Johnson said—on the importance of the FAFSA and how to complete it. Additional trainings were held to help school staff members complete FAFSAs with special populations, such as homeless students or those in foster care.
DCAN also chose a “champion” who would lead FAFSA campaigns in each school building. It enlisted counselors and other staff members from local colleges to help at FAFSA-completion events.
In Louisiana, a new policy prompted a big spike in FAFSA completions in the past year. In the high school graduating class of 2018, 81 percent of the students had completed the FAFSA as of July 1, compared to 65 percent a year earlier. That’s because all Louisiana students now face a new graduation requirement: fill out the FAFSA, or apply for aid through the state’s own scholarship program, which usually requires the FAFSA. Students can be excused from these requirements, but they have to fill out paperwork to do so.
One of the forces behind the new policy was the troubling news, unearthed through data analysis, that low-income students in Louisiana were getting a disproportionately low share of state and federal aid for college, state Superintendent John White said.
To combat that pattern, the state contracted with a handful of retired school counselors to help out with FAFSA completion at high schools around the state, said Ken Bradford, the assistant superintendent who oversees Louisiana’s FAFSA initiatives. It conducts quarterly trainings that have reached 1,000 counselors so far, and helps schools schedule FAFSA-completion events, he said.
The state used its influence to exert pressure on schools, too. Weekly, Louisiana officials sent FAFSA-completion updates to each school and district. But as the FAFSA filing deadline drew near, White changed tactics: He sent out a report that showed all schools and districts, ranked according to FAFSA completion, to “increase the urgency and transparency” behind the work, he said.
Louisiana is hoping that a “simple paradigm shift” of forcing students to opt out of financial-aid completion—instead of letting them opt in—will be a crucial step in helping more young people afford college, White said. Whether that translates into higher rates of college enrollment, he said, “remains to be seen.”